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Availability of natural resources has always been the core antecedent for industrial competitiveness and prosperity of nations. Historically, the exploration of new areas, population migration and geopolitical conflicts have been driven by the need to extend mankind’s resource base and ensure its accessibility. Resources have retained their important position until today, although nowadays the context has changed in various ways. This is a consequence of the constantly increasing world population and growing demand from newly industrialised countries that create great pressure on resource supply, as well as of technological change, which requires high amounts of formerly less used materials. The concept of material criticality was born from the concern that some materials (in particular, metals and minerals) may become scarce, impossible to access, highly volatile in their price or in other ways no longer routinely available for production and technologies deployment.

In recent decades, different materials were considered as critical at different periods even though the fundamental concerns were and still are the same. Materials are considered as critical when they are characterised by (i) a high impact of supply disruption, and (ii) by a high probability that such disruptions may happen:

  • A supply disruption poses a high impact if the raw material in question is of crucial economic importance for a stakeholder – such as, for many of today’s industrialised economies, raw materials for the expected transition towards electric mobility and renewable energy. Moreover, since the materials today labeled as critical have a particular impact on emerging technologies that are indispensable to abate climate change and to ensure sustainable development, these materials are not only economically important for certain stakeholders, but are crucial for the future of the global community.
  • Supply constraints can be caused by a myriad of factors such as geological scarcity, supply dependency on insecure sources, physical interruptions of the supply chains, governmental interventions, or market imbalances. Recently, environmental issues (e.g. energy demand, land and water use, CO2 footprint across the value chain) and social aspects (e.g. armed conflicts in mining regions, child labour, health and safety in mining and processing) of raw materials raise additional concerns over sustainable access to resources.

The literature has discussed a variety of actions to offset material criticality. They base on strategies such as increasing material efficiency, extending the lifespan of products, substituting materials, components or products, exploring new sources of primary supply, and increasing secondary supply sources (such as recycling or remanufacturing). Circular economy (CE) is particularly highlighted as a prominent approach for material criticality mitigation. CE sets the guiding framework for important interventions and highlights the need for system thinking via engagement of all stakeholders, consideration of the entire value chain and the full product and material life cycle. However, closing the loop of critical materials poses many challenges from technological complexity of recycling to organizational and operational constraints.

The course aims to provide the opportunity to learn how circular economy approaches may assist sustainable management of raw materials. In particular, the course will focus on circular economy approaches at company and supply chain levels. The former refers to product design solutions, while the latter addresses approaches for development of closed-loop supply chains. These complex topics will be tackled from multiple perspectives: technological, economic, environmental and regulatory.

Participants will have the chance to meet prominent scholars in the material criticality and circular economy fields who provide them with an overview of current research and implementation efforts as well as an outlook on future directions.

The school welcomes up to 45 attendees with an interest in sustainable management of natural resources and transition to the circular economy. The school primarily targets PhD students across all research disciplines, but applications from professionals, master of science students and post-doctoral researchers are welcome as well.

You may download the school leaflet here.