Mining is a good field

Lithium in the Ore MountainsGold rush mood in Saxony

Mining has a long tradition in Altenberg, Saxony. And now a renaissance could begin. Because the place has a treasure that is now to be unearthed: one of the largest lithium deposits in Europe.

"We have a great future ahead of us, with a new industry that is coming back, where we give other people an opportunity to work, not in precision engineering, not in tourism, but in mining. Yes, and for the future here in rural areas, I'm quite lucky. "

Mayor Thomas Kirsten cheers into the cameras of the MDR. Since 1990 he has stood for the free voters at the top of the town hall of the 8,000-strong community. Altenberg in the Eastern Ore Mountains is a state-approved spa and winter sports resort with a challenging bobsleigh run and was recently the venue for the international bobsleigh world championships. From here it is only five kilometers to the Czech border.

Tin mining has shaped the region since the Middle Ages. But in 1990 that was the end of it. Too expensive and uneconomical, found the Treuhandanstalt and closed the last mine. Review in an MDR documentary: "The tin mining in the Altenberger Revier is over. The Treuhand decided that in March. One last time it comes to light after the work is done."

The former miner Andreas Fromm cannot forget this "Black Day from Altenberg" to this day. Together with his father and two brothers, he himself drove into the mountain for years until 1990, his whole family firmly rooted in the mining tradition. "Yes, I can still remember that very well. And then I just switched off my work equipment, looked after it and knew exactly that I would never see it again."

Deutsche Lithium GmbH wants to revitalize mining

From now on, the largest employer in the area was missing. Many young men were forced to leave their homeland and look for new jobs in the West. It would take years for the place to recover and tourism to offer new opportunities. But now, 30 years later, there is a new spirit of optimism in Altenberg. The reason: Deutsche Lithium GmbH, a spin-off of the Solar World group, which has been insolvent since 2017, wants to revitalize the mining industry. Namely with the mining of lithium, the raw material that is indispensable for rechargeable batteries and batteries and also needed for wind turbines. A material with a future that is in demand like never before - and therefore arouses desires.

Together with the Freiberg Mining Academy, Deutsche Lithium has discovered a huge deposit at a historic location. Managing director Armin Müller shows the old Bünau tunnel in Zinnwald: "It is a treasure that first has to be lifted and of course causes costs when lifting. You can equip around 20 million vehicles with batteries, mid-range vehicles with around 30 kg of lithium carbonate per battery Consumption. And 20 million vehicles, that's quite a number. "

Largest lithium deposit in Europe

In this mine, on both sides of the German-Czech border, one of the largest lithium deposits in Europe is said to be located, as geologists and chemists from the Freiberg mining academy determined together with the mine company Deutsche Lithium during their investigations. Armin Müller again: "The deposit has been known for many centuries as a tin and tungsten deposit, even in the 1920s lithium was mined there in small quantities, ie the deposit was known and had been explored since 1917. We have A follow-up investigation has been carried out in the last 10 years, and from our point of view there are 125,000 tons of lithium metal in the deposit, which results in about 660,000 tons of lithium carbonate.

Thomas Seifert, geologist and professor of deposit theory at the renowned Bergakademie, was involved in the lithium research project from the start: "Yes, I was very close because this project comes from our area, for example, we initiated the project before Solar World got on board, we had worked on the research project. So it started in November 2009. "

Great interest from the auto industry

The raw material lithium is urgently needed. Especially for the production of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries like those used in electric cars. There are enough buyers - provided the price is right. In Saxony, the Volkswagen Group has just converted its plant in Zwickau and is building electric cars. The American electric car manufacturer Tesla plans to build a new factory in Brandenburg soon. There should also be interest in lithium from the Ore Mountains there.

Lithium exploration by SolarWorld AG in the Ore Mountains in 2012 (dpa / Arno Burgi)

In a global comparison, the planned Zinnwald lithium production would not be particularly large, but Germany would become somewhat more independent of the main global suppliers, Australia and Chile. Especially since there is always news from there that environmental standards are not being observed and, for example, indigenous peoples in Chile are suffering from lithium mining.

"Especially in Zinnwald it is like this, the raw material will be mined underground, environmentally friendly, there will be nothing to be seen near the surface, it will then be backfilled. And it is also a relatively environmentally friendly mining: So we do not have large amounts of water Dry areas, like in Chile, can be taken, but for the environmental balance from my point of view this type is better.

The raw material market is competitive

Germany is a country poor in raw materials - companies in the manufacturing industry are heavily dependent on imports. Rare raw materials are hotly contested on the international market. This is one of the reasons why the federal government decided on a raw materials strategy back in 2010, which was renewed in January of this year. An important player in this strategy is the German Raw Materials Agency, or DRA for short. It should help and support companies in getting the raw materials they need. Volker Steinbach is a department head at DRA.

"It is very important for us to look ahead, to consider which technologies are relevant for Germany, which raw materials, and in what quantities they will be needed by German companies now and in the next five or ten years."

EU wants to become more independent

The energy transition and electromobility are becoming more and more important in Germany - but this is precisely why special metals are needed. For solar energy these are gallium, indium and germanium, for wind turbine generators mainly rare earths, and for the batteries of electric cars besides lithium also cobalt, nickel and graphite. This need is likely to persist for many years or to increase. An important part of the German raw materials strategy is therefore that the federal government takes on guarantees for long-term supply contracts - similar to Hermes guarantees for exports. And the EU wants to promote new mines in the future in order to become more independent.

However, German industry is the fifth largest consumer of metallic raw materials and is therefore dependent on imports from all over the world. Securing this is also the task of Volker Steinbach.

"Raw material competence centers have been set up in South Africa, Canada, Brazil, Chile, another competence center is to be set up in West Africa and also in East Asia. And these competence centers are of course being set up to give German companies with local companies the opportunity to enter To enter into cooperation or to receive information very early on. "

(Jochen Faget) Lithium War - Electric Cars and the Consequences
Lithium is needed for the batteries of electric cars and smartphones. The light metal is mainly found in South America, but also in Portugal with the largest deposits in Europe. But there is fierce resistance there.

Environmentalists call for consistent recycling

There is a high dependency on China for rare earths, cobalt is mainly imported from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The DRA experts should find out whether and how these dependencies can be reduced. Another new aspect of the revised raw materials strategy is recycling. The more critical metals are recycled, the less need to import them. For Michael Reckordt from the environmental organization Power Shift in Berlin, this is still far too little.

"If, for example, one were to do consistent recycling, a circular use of these raw materials, if one tried to use less of these raw materials, a longer life of products, machines, etc., then that would also reduce the footprint and emissions . "

The processing of ores in particular consumes a great deal of energy. It is estimated that this causes around ten percent of global CO2 emissions. Michael Reckordt calls for the government to do a lot more to reduce this considerably. In his view, environmental pollution and human rights violations in the mines of other countries are not given enough consideration in the strategy.

"Above all, the Federal Government has a very industrial-political point of view, the Ministry of Economic Affairs is in charge. As civil society, we are heard over and over again in this process, but we have the feeling that the document is more likely to be written by the industry The influence of industry is much higher than that of environmental, human rights or development organizations. "

To make it clear that there is a need for action from Power Shift's point of view, Michael Reckordt took out his laptop. It shows some pictures that were taken in South Africa. "In 2012, workers in a mining mine went on strike for better wages and living conditions. And with the help of the security forces, the South African police shot and killed 34 workers at the place we see in these pictures."

Companies should take on more responsibility

This is an example of how companies have to be forced to actually take on their responsibility. "And there is a problem that German companies that purchase raw materials are not obliged to comply with their duties of care, not to look at what are actually human rights challenges. As a power shift, we are calling for a supply chain law that also makes companies liable for misconduct."

For Volker Steinbach from the raw materials agency, however, there is no need for action. He refers to an EU regulation that affects some critical metals. If these are introduced, it can be proven that they do not come from conflict regions. This is checked above all at the smelters in which the ores are processed. A supply chain law, on the other hand, would affect every single step from ore to metal and every subsequent step in further processing.

Dismantling in Germany brings advantages

"From our point of view, that would be a very large organizational and bureaucratic effort. We currently consider this EU regulation to be very important, that is an important milestone, and if you have the huts clean, then the entire supply chain is in principle clean."

Archive picture: Prof. Dr. Armin Müller, then director of SolarWorld Solicium GmbH (left) and Dr. Rainer Sennewald, geologist at GEOS Ingenieurgesellschaft mbH Freiberg, assessing ore samples for the analysis of lithium content. (2012) (dpa / Wolfgang Thieme)

Mining lithium in Germany would therefore be an advantage - because the mining conditions in this country are easier to control and the industry would be at least to a small extent less dependent on deliveries from abroad. The company Deutsche Lithium GmbH has received a mining license in the Ore Mountains for the next 30 years. Theoretically, mining could begin in 2021, the new mine is currently being planned: "Our big advantage with this project is that the lithium deposit is not in a very remote region, a desert or a highland, but that our deposit is in the At the heart of an industrial region, close to potential customers and close to potential partners, so that we can skip steps in the value chain and manufacture end products directly from the mineral, so that we can also produce these lithium compounds at significantly lower costs. "

Says managing director Armin Müller. Lithium mining has its price, however, and this will be decisive for the prospects of the Zinnwald project. He will be in competition with global competition. In Chile, for example, a ton of lithium carbonate is produced for around 2,000 to 2,500 US dollars. In Australia, mining is about twice as expensive because the raw material has to be extracted from rock. Armin Müller expects similar costs for the extraction of lithium carbonate in the Ore Mountains. However, he sees a sufficient margin at a market price of up to 14,000 US dollars per ton at times.

Lithium extraction through an environmentally friendly process

However, experts doubt that it can stay at this high price. On the one hand, the introduction of electric cars is not developing as dynamically as assumed, on the other hand, production volumes are being increased worldwide, which could then have a negative impact on the market price. But Müller and Deutsche Lithium have another trump card up their sleeve: The TU in Freiberg has developed an efficient and environmentally friendly process for extracting the coveted lithium carbonate: "Yes, the advantage of our process is that the zinnwaldite, along with lithium and potassium, also includes iron contains - and the quartz, the host rock, does not contain iron. That means what we have to do is: We have to break this ore and grind it to about a millimeter in size, grain size, and then you can put this ground product over a magnetic switch. And the zinnwaldite, the lithium mica, the magnetic one, this is then separated by this magnetic switch, taken out, and the quartz runs through, and so we have, as it were, separated both fractions. "

In a further step, the ground, released zinnwaldite is mixed with gypsum and limestone, then heated to 1000 degrees until it disintegrates into small, water-soluble, roasted spheres. In this way, the lithium carbonate can later be extracted easily and harmlessly with the help of water and carbon dioxide. In the end, it presents itself as a snow-white powdered sugar-like product with no residue. In this commercial form, it is used to manufacture batteries. However, there is currently no such production in Germany.

Conservationists fear water pollution

The lithium project in the Ore Mountains is being watched critically by nature conservationists. According to its chairman Jens Weber, the "Green League" association is concerned about groundwater: "We looked at these planning documents and, for example, it does not show how to ensure that the waters below the mine are not polluted For example, lignite ash and filter ash are to be used without any further water purification stage being set up. "

Other critics fear the new mining will attract heavy truck traffic and strain the region's narrow roads. Altenberg's mayor, Thomas Kirsten from the Free Voters, tries in an MDR interview to dispel these worries: "As it looks now, the ramp comes out directly from the processing - ie where the lithium is then crushed again So that there are also short distances, that is, emissions do not occur, from there you can drive wonderfully in the direction of Dresden, so all in all, I'm really very lucky! "

Up to 250 new jobs are to be created

This statement is from last year. It cannot be verified whether the Altenberg mayor's euphoria will continue. A specially arranged interview for this Deutschlandfunk research was canceled at short notice without giving any reason. In order to be able to raise, process and process the lithium treasure in the Ore Mountains with the help of a new chemical plant, you need an investment capital of around 160 million euros, calculates Armin Müller from the Deutsche Lithium mining company.

"And then, of course, ongoing financial resources for the operation of the companies and the mine. We are assuming that around 200 to 250 jobs will be created in the overall project, that is, around 80 jobs in mining and the remaining jobs in processing and the chemical factory . "

Investment is not secured

But the investment is not yet secured. It is currently endangered by difficult ownership structures in the company. 50 percent of the company belongs to the internationally operating British mining company Bacanora Minerals. The other shareholder in equal shares is Solar World AG, which has been insolvent since 2017. The attempt by the insolvency administrator to also sell these shares to Bacanora has recently failed, and a new investor is now being sought.

Nevertheless, Müller remains confident that the project can be advanced regardless of the difficult shareholder relationships: "We will see a great need for lithium in the next 5, 10, 15 years.And the second aspect why we assume that we will see a successful project in the end is that our deposit is in a developed industrial region that in turn relies on the horse "electromobility": VW Zwickau, or Tesla Grünheide. Lithium deposits in Europe are limited, and that's why sooner or later, in my opinion, you will want to use our deposit sooner. "

In line with this optimism, the Sächsische Zeitung reported a few days ago that the two owners of Deutsche Lithium had agreed to advance the lithium project in Zinnwald in parallel to the ongoing search for investors.