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Green energies – “Europe’s security of supply will depend on China in the future”

The Green Deal by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the Austrian Renewable Expansion Act (EAG). Both have the same goal: to phase out fossil fuels. Cars should run on electricity, trucks should run on hydrogen, and the electricity will in future be generated by wind turbines, solar panels and hydropower plants. Why the energy production but still not CO2-neutral and why Europe is making itself dependent on China, explains the head of the chair for geology and mineral deposits at the Montanuniversität Leoben, Frank Melcher:

“Wiener Zeitung”: Mr. Melcher, the EU countries are about to introduce their CO2-Reduce emissions. Instead of oil, gas and coal, the energy will now come from photovoltaics, wind power and hydropower. Then everything is fine, right?

Frank Melcher: In principle, that’s all good. But don’t forget how green technologies are made. For wind, solar energy, electromobility, etc. you need mineral raw materials that leave an ecological footprint when they are extracted. Most of the raw materials, however, are not mined in Europe.

Does Europe put on the white vest at the expense of others?

Of course, electric cars are good for our air quality. However, the ecological footprint takes place elsewhere. From a global perspective, Europe’s green energy changes little, because we do not mine the raw materials at all. Lye plants for processing domestic ores are difficult to imagine in Europe. Just not next to my garden, that’s what they say. In China or the DR Congo, however, it’s okay for us

What is so harmful about the breakdown of metals?

It differs from ore to ore. Rare earths, for example, are only available to a small extent in mined ores, so there is a lot of spoil. They are in minerals that are very difficult to dissolve. The elements then have to be released with aggressive chemicals. This is a complex, multi-stage process that leaves at least 95 percent partially contaminated waste. These toxic chemicals are a potential source of danger.

What dangers do you mean?

Accidents happen again and again, as in previous years in Romania or Brazil. When a dam breaks in a retention basin intended to hold back a fine-grained, toxic sludge water mixture, it flows into the rivers via the receiving water. In Romania and Hungary there were massive fish deaths, in Brazil people were also caught in the mud and killed.

There is a lack of mining areas for metals in Europe. Why is that?

Ores have been mined in Europe for 2,000 years. Most of the easily degradable metals have already been found. Everything that is now there can only be mined more expensively because the mining has to go deep or only low-grade ores are extracted. Europe is also massively built, there is forestry and agriculture, groundwater protection, tourist areas and national parks. This severely limits the possibilities.

Where are there potential mining areas?

Potential mining areas are currently being examined primarily in Scandinavia, but people in Central and Southern Europe are rather skeptical and are not really looking for new raw materials. With the exception of lithium, which is an important component in e-mobility. Processing a lithium ore is also less of a problem than processing other metals.

Europe is currently very dependent on Russia for gas supplies. Europe is now relying on green energy, which, however, is based on raw materials that are mainly mined in China. Is Europe now making itself dependent on China?

Europe’s conversion to green technologies actually depends very much on China, the country is the world market leader in around 20 mineral raw materials. The EU has drawn up a list of 27 critical raw materials, all of which must be imported. Three quarters of them come from China. The security of supply in Europe will therefore depend on China in the future. It will be important to cooperate well with China. That has worked well for the past few years. But you can never be sure how this will develop in the future.

China is the market power in green raw materials. What is the economic impact of this?

China has a gigantic deposit in Inner Mongolia and has a monopoly on various raw materials. This allows the People’s Republic to determine the price. Once more raw materials, then again less raw materials can be thrown on the market and thus control the market.

In what form does China offer the raw materials?

China now no longer sells raw ores or pre-concentrates, but mainly higher-quality intermediate and end products. That increases the profit margin. European companies that are dependent on raw ores and concentrates therefore often orientate themselves towards Central Africa. Countries like DR Congo or Burundi are riddled with conflict. There are civil wars and child labor. But these countries are the sources for European companies that rely on these raw materials.

In order to reduce the dependence on China, there is repeated talk of the circular economy. To what extent can metals be recycled and thus reused?

This is already being implemented very well with metals such as iron, copper and aluminum. The problem is products with a large number of metals, such as turbines or electronic scrap. Cell phone scrap contains around 50 metals, with a total value of just under one euro per cell phone. To recycle every single metal from it is therefore absolutely nonsense from an economic point of view. But if we want photovoltaics, we need these poorly soluble metals. Recycling metals such as rare earths is a major technological challenge.

For which energy has to come from somewhere. . .

Yes exactly. Recycling consumes a lot of energy. All raw materials in a product that have already gone through a high-temperature process can only be released at an even higher temperature. That means: A metal that is extracted at 1,200 to 1,400 degrees and then installed can only be recovered as a residual material at 1,800 or 2,000 degrees. It therefore takes more energy to recover the residual material than to break down the primary material.

Frank Melcher is professor and head of the chair for geology and reservoir theory at the Montanuniversität Leoben.  His main research interests are: the creation of raw materials with a focus on critical mineral raw materials and precious metals, certification of raw materials and analytical proof of origin (fingerprinting) for mineral raw materials.  - © Montanuni Leoben
Frank Melcher is professor and head of the chair for geology and reservoir theory at the Montanuniversität Leoben. His main research interests are: the creation of raw materials with a focus on critical mineral raw materials and precious metals, certification of raw materials and analytical proof of origin (fingerprinting) for mineral raw materials. – © Montanuni Leoben

So with green energy we will consume more mineral raw materials. How long can this go on?

The name rare earths does not mean that they are geologically rare. They seldom form minerals that can be seen. However, they are hidden in other minerals. We have so many reserves of this raw material that we can supply ourselves for several hundred years. Mind you, with the same consumption. The industry looks little because there are enough reserves. In the case of other raw materials for the energy transition, however, the known reserves are much smaller and new deposits must be constantly sought.

It sounds like we won’t get any more environmentally friendly with photovoltaics, hydropower and solar energy. What solution is there then?

I don’t think energy production is CO2-can be neutral. It will of course be very positive if we reduce the nitrogen oxides in our car and truck traffic in the future because they are powered by electricity or hydrogen. It has to be a clever combination of several measures. I think it’s very good that there are communities that make themselves self-sufficient from fossil fuels, where renewable raw materials such as wood are used. But dust is also produced there and it is not CO2-free. No matter where we get the energy from, we will always leave a footprint. However, emission-free cars will improve our quality of life. That is very positive for us. However, I doubt whether this will help the people in Africa or in China, who provide the raw materials for us.

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