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Raw materials and critical metals

Raw materials research with synchrotron radiation

Metals for the energy transition

Current and future sustainable development in the energy industry requires a variety of metals. The metal demand for the expansion of renewable energies is highly variable and ranges from several tonnes (e.g. copper) to a few kilograms (e.g. rare earths) for a wind turbine. This increased demand must be met for global sustainable development. Deposit research investigates the formation processes of metallic deposits and can thus provide indications for the development of new deposits. The conclusions about the formation conditions can also provide assistance for improving the reprocessing of metals through recycling.

Research goals

The mechanisation of everyday life, the increased energy demand and the renunciation of fossil energy sources require an abundance and increased quantity of the most diverse metals for the future. Predictions about the behaviour of these during the formation of ore deposits can only be made if we understand in detail how they can be mobilised and enriched under the most varied pressure and temperature conditions. Research with synchrotron radiation helps to understand the chemical conditions and interactions of the metals with aqueous solutions, magmas and other mineral components. The main steps of mobilisation and enrichment of the metals often take place in aqueous solution or in magmas and can lead to very complex reactions. In the studies with synchrotron radiation, the composition of the solution or magma/melt as well as other (environmental) conditions are varied in corresponding reaction cells to generate an image of the natural processes that is as coherent as possible. This image helps to understand the processes of ore formation. However, this can also be reversed to develop processes to bring metals back into solution and thus increase reusability through recycling. Current research focuses on so-called critical metals, i.e. metals of high importance but with high uncertainties in the producing countries, such as platinum metals, rare earths or tungsten. The basic research on precipitation behaviour also directly helps to understand the processes involved in the formation of deposits and thus directly supports the exploration of new ore deposits.

Overview of raw material demand in Germany

As an industrial and research location, the German raw materials market is dependent on imports. Detailed information on the relevance of individual metals, future developments and security of supply can be found in the regular raw material information reports of the German Raw Materials Agency (DERA). The Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) also publishes information on the raw materials situation in Germany at regular intervals.

Raw materials research in Germany

As a historical mining location, Germany has a large number of research institutes that investigate the formation, but also the processing, of ore deposits both nationally and internationally. Since 2020, the DFG-funded priority programme DOME (Dynamics of Ore Metals Enrichment) has sought to pool this expertise and develop a more complete understanding of deposit-forming processes through interdisciplinary research. Promoting raw materials research in Germany was also the goal of the funding measure "r4 - Innovative Technologies for Resource Efficiency - Research for the Provision of Economically Strategic Raw Materials" initiated by the BMBF in 2015. The expertise in research here does not lie with individual institutes, but in a network of research institutions and universities throughout Germany.

Examples from research

Experiments with synchrotron radiation have led to new findings on metals such as gold, platinum, magnetite, plutonium or iron in recent years. Often, the focus is on their behaviour at high pressure and high temperatures, such as inside the Earth, but also on their interactions with sulphides or previously unknown variants, for example of plutonium or iron oxides. 

A mineral pump for gold in the Earth’s crust, Univ. Potsdam, ESRF, 2022

A bright future for research at high-pressures and temperatures at PETRA III, DESY, Bayerisches Geoinstitut (BGI) in Bayreuth, 2022

Platinum hitches a ride with sulfur in the Earth’s crust, Univ. Potsdam, 2021

Minerals let Earth's oceans seep down deeper than expected, DESY, University in South Korea, 2021

A new charge reordering in magnetite, ESRF, 14 December 2021

A new stable form of plutonium discovered at the ESRF, ESRF, HZDR, 18 October 2019

Gold in high-temperature ore-forming fluids has a ubiquitous complex, ESRF, 26 June 2019

The new Iron Age, ESRF, 02 April 2019

Platinum Forms Nano-Bubbles, DESY, Univ. Hamburg, 24.01.2019

Discovery of new iron oxides points to large oxygen source inside the Earth, DESY, Univ. Bayreuth, 11 February 2016

Record high pressure squeezes secrets out of osmium, DESY, Univ. Bayreuth, 24 August 2015