Ukraine War’s Impact on Critical Materials Supply, Green Energy

We are already witnessing the positive benefits of the nascent hydrogen economy in the City of Birmingham - hydrogen buses now run in the city, refueled using clean hydrogen from electrolysis at Tyseley Energy Park a development which has been spearheaded by the Birmingham Energy Institute in collaboration with Webster and Horsfall. 

With the spike in Natural Gas prices, many will be looking at how we can move away from Natural Gas, indeed the University Birmingham’s CBI Policy Commission on ‘The Road to Low Carbon Heat’ considers hydrogen as one pathway to reduce the amount of natural gas we consume and the University is spearheading the development of a National Centre for Decarbonized Heat

Electric vehicles are another tool to help us move away from fossil fuels, however, the supply chains for key critical materials will also be under pressure. With concerns around Cobalt used in Lithium Ion Batteries, automakers have transitioned to chemistries containing greater proportions of Nickel for higher-performance batteries. Russia is a big producer of Nickel, and recent events have sent shockwaves through the London Metals Exchange, causing them to suspend trading on Nickel - the first time this has happened since 1985.

For electric vehicles, whose batteries contain around 27.5 kg of Nickel, this could lead to a price increase of around $2000 for the nickel alone, notwithstanding other increases to the prices of raw materials.

Ukraine is also a major producer of Neon gas - this is essential for the manufacture of semiconductor devices, which are used widely in green technologies for the management of power. The semiconductor industry is already reeling from the pandemic and struggling to recover production volumes - the shutdown of Neon production from Ukraine will be another stumbling block for recovery.

This is just a pen-portrait of a few materials, but there will be many others that are affected by the present situation and complex supply chains. Amidst the chaos, it is essential that we apply foresight to try and mitigate the effects of critical materials supply chain problems to ensure that we keep the green recovery on track.

At the University of Birmingham, our Birmingham Centre for Strategic Elements and Critical Materials launched a Policy Commission “Securing Technology Critical Metals for Britain”, chaired by former Chief Government Scientific Advisor Sir John Beddington.

Some of that report’s recommendations have already been adopted by the Government with the formation of a Critical Materials Expert Committee but as this latest crisis highlights we need to go further and faster in our push to ensure Critical Materials security as this has profound implications for Energy Security and in turn National Security.

Gavin Harper is a University of Birmingham’s Faraday Institution Research Fellow