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Research at the Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology

The Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology (HIF) is investigating and developing new technologies for securing the supply of the German economy with strategically important metalliferous raw materials. We are dealing with primary and secondary resources from domestic and international deposits. Our focus is on the whole value-added chain of raw materials with the following main research topics:

  • Analytics and processing of complex polymetallic raw materials

Although ore bodies with high metal contents basically exist in Germany as well as other countries an economical extraction of valuable metals is often constrained by their complex composition. At HIF we are researching and developing technologies for processing such complex ores.

New analytical methods are able to accurately determine the constituent minerals so that basically all metals contained might be extracted. Our aim therefore is to advance environmentally friendly technologies using bioleaching and biosorption processes for selectively separating metals.

New analytical and processing-oriented methods can also be used for simultaneously treating complex mineral phases and several metals when applied to suitable deposits, tailings, or even metal-bearing electronic waste. In the long run, the availability of such technologies could lead to lower prices of raw materials, higher recycling rates, fewer negative externalities to the environment, and renaturization.

  • Extraction, processing, and recycling of rare earth elements and other critical metals such as gallium, indium, and germanium

Several elements with similar chemical traits can be asssigned to the rare earth elements - scandium, yttrium, and the lanthanides (from lanthanum to lutetium). The rare earths are of central importance for today's modern information society, but also for the energy transition towards alternative energy sources. For example, europium and terbium are needed for colour displays, and neodymium is used for permanent magnets of efficient gear-less wind turbines. In addition, other economically and strategically important metals like gallium, indium, and germanium are nowadays used for many high tech products such as mobile phones, thin layer solar wafers, LEDs etc.

However, only a few countries or companies can rely on the necessary technologies for economically producing these metals (when ignoring market-based restrictions). As the demand for high tech products is increasing on a day-by-day basis in the course of the economic upsurge of emerging markets, supply risks and price increases for many of these metals are arising (e.g., europium by factor 5 within one month). What is more, many of the technologies used to attain several of the critical metals involve negative impacts and risks on the environment due to the types of deposit (e.g., high contents of radioactive elements) or due to the reactants used (e.g., kerosine).

Thus, in order to safeguard an environmentally friendly energy transition using alternative energy sources we have to develop modern technologies for suitable deposits and secondary sources which are sustainable in terms of their economic, ecological, and societal impacts.

  • Geometallurgy

Geometallurgy is understood as an integrative optimization of processes along the entire value-added chain of raw materials, based on a detailed understanding of the composition and microstructure of the used raw materials (primary and secondary) as well as their impact on efficiency, material use and effectiveness of all process steps.

By focusing on geometallurgy HIF is integrating all competencies on raw materials and processes. Only such an integrative approach enables us to develop efficient and sustainable methods to process and refine certain ores or end-of-life products. Because of this process-oriented view we are able to forecast the economic feasibility of new types of deposits or innovative and environmentally friendly methods before investing. Finally, this approach also allows for utilizing small amounts of metals for which developing and using particular processing methods would possibly not pay off.