Germany’s hidden treasures

This article was published in the HZDR magazine "Discovered" 2/2017.

The Energiewende is systemically changing our use of raw materials. While the need for coal, oil and gas is decreasing in the long term, the demand for metals and construction materials for energy-efficient wind and solar plants, battery and hydrogen storage or other systems is growing. Germany is not yet fully exploiting its potential in this field.

This article is heavy, because it is written on a computer. According to estimates from the Wuppertal Institute and a UN study, some 19,000 kilos of raw materials, including the fuels that go into power generation, are needed to manufacture a single computer. Apart from 1,500 liters of water, 22 kilos of chemicals and 240 kilos of fossil fuels are required. But what really determines computing power are precious and technology metals, particularly copper, tin, gold, tantalum and many others from all over the world. And because a lot of calls had to be made before this article could be written, one should really include land line and cell phones on the raw materials balance sheet as well.

Kristallaggregat von Kupferkies, Bleiglanz, Zinkblende und Kalkspat.

Copper and other metals are the backbone of German industry. In this picture they are contained in a crystal aggregate of chalcopyrite, galenite, sphalerite and calcite. Photo: HZDR/ Jürgen Jeibmann


But enough playing around with numbers. What is clear is that raw materials are an omnipresent and indispensable part of our lives – because they are not just found in computers and phones but at the heart of every kind of technology and electronics. Raw materials are part of the DNA of technological progress. There is no alternative to them and their availability is yet limited. This is precisely the dilemma facing industrial nations like Germany. Since Germany has committed to the Energiewende, it will need to increasingly cover its demand of energy with wind and solar power plants. But without raw materials, renewables will not be working. Admittedly, renewables reduce the long-term demand for coal, oil and gas, but at the same time, the need for inorganic raw materials increases. They are essential for producing the plants that generate power from renewables and that store the energy.

“In the new energy technologies, we largely use the same raw materials as we do for other high-tech products,” explains Jens Gutzmer, Director at the Helmholtz Institute Freiberg for Resource Technology (HIF), which is affiliated to the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf. These include, above all, technology metals like copper, cobalt, platinum group metals, but also specialty metals such as indium, tellurium, gallium and germanium, or rare-earth elements. According to Gutzmer, they are just as essential for the energy sector as for the automotive industry or the electronics, information and communication branches. “Because Germany has essentially no mining industry of its own and the recycling rates for raw materials like rare-earth elements or indium, tellurium, gallium and germanium are very low, Germany is dependent to a very high degree on imports of metalliferous raw materials and intermediates.”

A focus on critical raw materials

Given this diagnosis, politicians have identified the sustainable supply of raw material as an essential task for the industry. The German government has created the necessary framework for the industry with its raw materials strategy. Within the context of this strategy the government seeks to introduce a whole bunch of measures to improve access to raw materials in a global market that is both transparent and fair. Other actions include the support of research into raw materials and substitution, as well as transparency and good governance in raw materials production. These national measures dovetail with European raw materials policy. New structural measures have also been introduced like the establishment of a German Mineral Resources Agency (DERA) at the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR), the foundation of the Helmholtz Institute in Freiberg and the introduction of an Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMA) on raw materials.

Industry, in particular small and medium-sized enterprises, is designated as the beneficiaries of this knowledge and consultancy support. By monitoring critical resources, information on supply and demand trends for mineral raw materials are made available to help identifying delivery risks or unwanted developments on the raw materials markets well in advance. All these measures are always interlinked with the government’s activities at European level.

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