Globally there is increasing attention towards a range of materials that have been termed critical materials. Critical materials are mostly named as single elements, are metals, at risk of supply constraints, have environmental implications, financially costly, price volatile, deemed economically important and are difficult to substitute as a result of their unique properties or for economic reasons. These metals are used in engineering, technology applications and product designs. A number of publications argue that product design has an important role to play in responding to critical material risks. It can be said that most definitions are developed by those outside the field of product design and the resulting definitions make it difficult for product designers, and the wider product development team, to engage in activity to address the critical materials challenge. There is a gap between the practice of product design and the current definitions. An agreed definition going forwards would facilitate increased product design activity around the substitution of critical materials, including circular, closed loop, approaches, in order to contribute towards reducing critical materials supply risks. Peck et al.
The selection of materials is the starting point for any product designer [1, 2]. Whilst not disagreeing with this view, Graedel has however proposed that product designers have been taught to regard materials as nothing but a means to an end, and that 'unwise design' choices are being made . In line with this criticism some governments, most notably the UK  and The European Commission  have recently proposed that product design and innovation should play an increasingly important role in addressing concerns over critical materials. In all fields, including materials and product design, a generic definition of critical materials is important.
The material requirements of products and technologies has become more ‘omnivorous’  with a one large, global, engineering and technology company stating they use at least 70 of the first 83 elements listed in the Periodic Table of Elements . This reflects a range of industries that have seen rapid technological developments over the past 30 years using an ever increasing range of materials in order to meet the performance requirements in new products. These connected activities have contributed to material supply changes that can be observed through disruptions to supply and price volatility.
Looking forwards, the material requirements of technology will increase, with the size of metals trading continuing to increase. This trend will be driven by a world of increasing population (driven by longer life expectancy), increasing wealth (in particular the rise of the ‘middle class’ in emerging economies), near term technological trends driving increased use of critical materials and the increasing complexity in the winning of new resources , ,  & .
Most critical materials are metals but in terms of prices they appear to behave differently and at different times. Detailed economic analysis is beyond the scope of this paper but this example highlights the unusual economic nature of critical materials. The 2011 period of high price rises has been termed a ‘hype’ period  but a complex range of underlying challenges, regarding supply and prices of critical materials, is on-going. It should be made clear that price changes, be they increases, decreases or volatility, are not the only metric by which a material can be determined as critical. It can be argued that a singular focus on prices could be misleading. In general, prices since 2011 have been dropping and many could conclude there is no risk attached to CRM’s.
There is no agreed global list and there is significant variability geographically, both by country and/or region. If all listed elements from all countries and regions are cumulatively added together then most elements in industrial use are listed. It is proposed that this approach does not help product design define critical materials as all materials are then critical. The cumulative lists example however does demonstrate the complex and sometimes confusing nature of the topic.
Critical materials – materials of interest for a range of countries. Adapted from U.S. Department of Energy, Critical Materials Strategy, Dec 2010 
Japan Ni, Mn, Co, W, Mo,V European Union Sb, Be, Co, Ga, Ge, In, Mg, Nb, REEs, Ta, W,PGMs. Updated 2014 : Li, Be, Mg, Sc, Cr, Co, Ga, Ge, Y (as HREE), Nb, PGM’s, In, Sb, W, Light Rare Earth’s (LREE, not Pm), Heavy Rare Earth’s (HREE). Non elements (2014): Borates, Magnesite, Silicon metal, Coking coal, Fluorspar, Natural graphite & Phosphate rock.
The Netherlands Ag, As, Au, Be, Bi, Cd, Co, Ga, Ge, Hg, In, Li, Mo, Nb, Nd, Ni, Pb, Pd, PGMs, REEs, Re, Ru, Sb, Sc, Se, Sn, Sr, Ta, Te, Tl, V, W, Y, Zn, Zr China Sb, Sn, W, Fe, Hg, Al, Zn, V, Mo, REEs South Korea As, Ti, Co, In, Mo, Mn, Ta, Ga, V, W, Li and REEs, PGMs, Si, Zr Australia Ta, No, V, Li and REEs Canada Al, Ag, Au, Fe, Ni, Cu, Pb, Mo Germany Ag, Be, Bi, Co, Cr, Ga, Ge, In, Mg, Nb, Pd, PGMs, Re, REEs, Sb, Sn, Ta, W France Au, Co, Cu, Ga, Ge, In, Li, Mg, Ni, Nb, Re, REEs, Se, Ta Finland Ag, Co, Cr, Cu, Fe, Li, Mn, Nb, Ni, PGMs, REEs, Ti, Zn United States Ce, Co, Dy, Eu, Ga, In, La, Li, Nd, Pr, Sm, Tb, Te, Y
Definition for product design, 2014: A critical material concerns a range of metal material resources that are selected in the product design process for a wide range of products. They are usually ‘invisible’ to the product designer, normally named as elements and provide a unique performance that the product user highly values. Critical materials can be subject to supply challenges, often cannot be easily replaced with less critical substitutes and can be challenging to recycle. Critical materials can be substituted using a range of approaches including using circular /closed loop thinking. Critical Materials can provide opportunities to significantly reduce environmental impacts during product use and critical material use should not be avoided.
To complement the definition an example list from Europe of what are critical materials is: Elements: Li, Be, Mg, Sc, Cr, Co, Ga, Ge, Nb, Platinum Group Metals (RU, Rh, Pd, Os, Ir, Pt), In, Sb, W, Light Rare Earth’s (LREE, - La, Ce, Pr, Nd,, Sm), & Heavy Rare Earth’s (HREE – Y, Eu, Gd, Tb, Dy, Ho, Er, Tm, Yb and Lu).
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