Why we are dependent on the raw materials for the energy transition

KURIER: Mr. Melcher, independence from Russian gas is currently the major goal of the EU. In the future, energy will come from photovoltaics, wind and hydropower. To manufacture these plants, however, we need mineral raw materials, most of which are not mined in Europe. So are we becoming dependent on China on another level?
Frank Melcher: We must not delude ourselves, we are already dependent on China for many mineral raw materials. The country is already the world market leader for around 20 of these raw materials. As far as the energy transition in particular is concerned, we need certain metals for the production of wind and solar technology – the famous rare earths, for example. And yes, we source these mainly from China.

But not only the extraction of raw materials, also the preparation and further processing takes place in China.
The West also outsourced that around 20 years ago. China now sells hardly any raw ores and pre-concentrates, but mainly intermediate and end products, such as the finished magnets for the wind turbines. That increases the profit margin and also makes the West dependent on production.

Why this development?
These are primarily for environmental and cost reasons. Let’s take the rare earths for example. They are in minerals that are very difficult to dissolve. The elements then have to be dissolved out with aggressive chemicals. This is a complex, multi-stage process that leaves at least 95 percent partially contaminated waste. Plants that do that are hard to imagine in Europe. This is the classic NIMBY (Not in my Backyard) syndrome. Just not next to my garden, they say.

We also need other raw materials to build the plants.
Yes, we have eight cement plants in Austria. For the energy transition, however, our demand will increase enormously. It is questionable where we get these raw materials from, also because the approval procedures here take a very long time.

Could we reduce dependency through the circular economy?
Recycling already works very well for metals such as copper and aluminum as well as concrete. In the case of rare earths, on the other hand, this is difficult, where the recycling rate is less than one percent. This is also due to the fact that the wind turbines have a long service life and the magnets do not even have to be returned to the cycle. Products with a lot of metals, such as scrap mobile phones, are also problematic. This contains about 60 different raw materials, which are worth a total of maybe one euro. Recycling it makes no economic sense at all.

Does it make ecological sense?
Especially with metals, recycling works either with toxic chemicals or with a lot of energy. Circular economy sounds great, of course, and I’m basically in favor of it too. At the same time, however, we must not lose sight of the fact that this causes costs for the environment. So we always have to ask ourselves the question: is the damage we are causing really less than the damage we are causing by mining primary raw materials?

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