Germany’s hidden treasures - part 2
Energy transition at the crossroads
Only time will show how the demand for raw materials will develop in practice. Experts from the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, the National Academy of Science and Engineering, acatech, and the Union of German Academies of Science recently investigated whether the success of the energy transition might in the end be endangered by a lack of raw materials. In the project “Energy Systems of the Future”, some 100 researchers worked in interdisciplinary groups on ways of progressing to an environmentally benign, secure and affordable energy supply.
And the good news is: it is possible to secure sufficient supplies of metals, fossil fuels and bioenergy for the Energiewende in Germany. Globally, there are sufficient raw material resources known to satisfy demand for the foreseeable future. The urgent question is thus not whether supply can be guaranteed in general but how it can be achieved. Prices, for example, are decisive and the math is fairly simple: If the metals get too expensive, investing in more climate-friendly technologies makes less economic sense. But another question is just as important: whether and how the required expansion of the mining industry – an industry often viewed with suspicion regarding its impact on the environment – will find social acceptance. “Germany needs a long-term raw materials policy,” the authors of the study claim, “in order to promote open, transparent markets and high environmental and social standards. More recycling and mining in Germany, Europe and the deep sea as well as strategic investment in raw materials projects can improve the security of supply.”
While Germany has no alternative but to import metalliferous raw materials, it is self-sufficient when it comes to construction raw materials like sand and gravel and certain industrial minerals such as kaolin and gypsum. The only limits stem from competing interests such as environmental or potable water resource protection.
The experts base their assessment of geological availability on the reserves that have already been tapped, the resources – that is, the raw material volumes that are known but currently not exploitable with today’s technology and at today’s prices – and the geopotentials. The latter refer to volumes of raw materials that may be present in certain geological structures, for example, but have not yet been identified by actual exploration. “By exploring, continuing to develop mining, and processing technologies and with increasing market prices, geopotentials and resources can be transformed into reserves,” Jens Gutzmer explains. This means that the reserves of most raw materials actually “grow” with use, sometimes disproportionately in terms of consumption. Take oil, for example: From 1950 to 2013, consumption increased eightfold while the reserves went up twentyfold thanks to new methods of exploration and exploitation technologies.
Whether this can happen with mineral resources as well? It would be good if it could. A current risk analysis by DERA on lithium, for example, shows that demand for this alkali metal, which is crucial for state-of-the-art batteries, could triple by 2025. If electromobility would now really take off – decisively driven by high, state-imposed quotas in China – the DERA experts reckon that total demand for cobalt could more than double in this period, too. And the world boom in battery production would also have a significant impact on the graphite market. Why? Because graphite is an essential component for the anodes of lithium-ion batteries both in a synthetic form and as natural spheroidal graphite. Approximately 1.1 kilos of graphite are needed per kilowatt hour of battery capacity in modern electric cars. Industry requires lithium and cobalt first and foremost as material for the cathodes.
Circular economy: mining electronic waste
Particularly in Germany, the requirements for electromobility and the implementation of the Energiewende focus attention not only on primary raw material production through mining but also on the utilization of so-called “secondary deposits”. In an increasingly circular economy, raw materials that can be salvaged from old devices and infrastructure have long played an important role. On the supply side, this can be a response to demand-based shortages. In general, it can be observed that scarcity and price increases usually lead to more efficient and economical use or – where appropriate – to substitution by another, equally, or perhaps even more, suitable raw material. “In the last hundred years, this loop system has meant that, on average, the real prices for most raw materials have hardly increased,” Gutzmer notes.
Over and above exploiting these secondary deposits researchers are called upon to drive technological progress in order to create the preconditions for discovering new ore deposits. “But in Germany mineral exploration doesn’t play much of a role at present,” is the assessment of Richard Gloaguen, head of the Exploration Technology Division at HIF. “On the one hand, this is due to a general misconception that there are not many ore deposits in Germany and, on the other, there is a lack of political and social acceptance for mining.” Critical minerals that are systemically relevant for certain industries in the energy and IT sectors, he notes, largely come from abroad, especially from resource-rich transition economies such as China, Brazil and South Africa, but also from developing countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo.