Centre for Earth Systems Engineering Research



This project looks at material flows for E-tech elements.


LAYERS takes a generic approach to understand and model the global supply chain of critical minerals for climate change mitigation technologies. 

It uses:

  • Material Flow Analysis
  • geological mapping
  • spatial visualisation

It is a NERC Security of Supply Catalyst Grant Project. Find out more on the LAYERS website.

Mapping global flows

LAYERS is a nine month proof-of-concept study. It was funded under the NERC ‘Security of Supply of Mineral Resources’ programme. 

LAYERS uses material flow analysis to produce a generic model of the entire supply chain for selected E-tech elements. The model includes deposit, extraction, processing, use, disposal, and management of strategically important mineral resources. 

We focus on E-tech elements that are needed for environmental technologies and applications that will allow for cleaner energy and more efficient energy usage.

At the catalyst stage we illustrate the concept of LAYERS. This with a view to gaining further funding for a fouryear study to apply this approach across all E-Tech elements. 

After discussions with our eight industrial stakeholders we focussed on cobalt to illustrate the LAYERS concept. 

Data have been collected for cobalt reserves, mines, refineries, manufacturing, use and disposal. 

The output is linked to national and local climate change strategies and carbon reduction targets. For example, DECC 2050 Roadmap, London Mitigation Plan. It is also linked to global strategies and targets such as EU 2020 and Kyoto.

Aims and objectives

The aim of LAYERS is to develop an integrated methodology to improve material efficiency throughout the supply chain for E-tech elements. 

It produces a generic model demonstrating the value and relevance for the global strategic management of mineral resources. 

We illustrate the layers of mineral flows from geological and geographical occurrence through to the end of life. 

LAYERS develops and tests a methodology and associated analysis framework. This can become an essential tool that links academia and industry across the world to ensure resilience of supply of E-Tech elements needed to achieve carbon reduction targets.

We work with key industry stakeholders and acquire industry data and expert knowledge to construct a spatial database that contains information on the locations of activity in each layer and the flows between layers. This is developed in a GIS framework and displayed using spatial visualisation.

As part of the catalyst grant project, a set of layers and the associated visualisation has been created for cobalt. We used data from numerous global data sources. These included EU ProMine, UN Comtrade, and industry mining sources such as USGS, CDI, Roskill, Idaho Cobalt.

Each location of activity is visualised and links between layers are created. This visualisation is underpinned by a spatial database. This contains numerical data about location, size, tonnages, operating dates, and ownership of each facility. 

The BS EN ISO 14051 (2011) standard in material flow provides a framework to evaluate the flows and stocks of materials within an organization. We adopt this and, using flows, we are able to model the movement of elements around the globe. 

The UK has a greenhouse gas reduction target of 80% by 2050 (DECC 2050). 48% of UK cities stipulated electric cars as one important tool to achieve such reductions (Heidrich et al, 2013). 

In 2012 the UK imported 85 million lithium batteries, most of them from Japan, China, and Belgium. 

Selecting input/output quantity centres to be countries and following the implementation steps of the PDCA cycle advocated by ISO 14051 we developed a MFA for cobalt. 

According to Comtrade, the majority of Japan’s cobalt originates in Australia. China and Belgium import their processed cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which also refines its own ores. 

Thus, the UK’s battery supplies for electric vehicles are subject to the instability of cobalt supplies from DR Congo. 

Additional cobalt reserves are recorded in Canada, Finland, and Tanzania. 

LAYERS and its unique method allows the visualisation and identification of such insecurities, and future national and international material strategies to address them.


DECC (2010). 2050 Pathways Analysis. HM Government (pp. 252). London: UK, Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

EC (2010) Energy 2020- A strategy for competitive, sustainable and secure energy. Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, Brussels, Belgium.

Heidrich et al (2013) Assessment of the climate preparedness of 30 urban areas in the UK. Climatic Change, 120 (4), pp. 771-784.

ISO 14051 (2011). Environmental management- Material flow cost accounting- General framework. Brussels, Belgium: European Committee for Standardisation.