Topic of the month November 2011

Recently opened resource technology institute “Helmholtz-Institut Freiberg für Ressourcentechnologie” now plans to research the entire value chain for metal ores, from prospecting and mining through to recycling. And there could not have been a more symbolic location to develop this facility funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research – one that is unique throughout Germany. In Saxony the prospecting and already even the mining of metal ores is underway.

Nineteen years after the closure of the last ore mine in the Erzgebirge region of Saxony a pit reopened last year: in Niederschlag barite operating firm “Erzgebirgische Fluss- und Schwerspatcompagnie EFS Geos GmbH” now wishes to mine fluorspar and barite – and demonstrate the profitability of domestic extractive industries. This is a move that could catch on elsewhere. Back in the spring the solar technology group acquired the prospecting rights for lithium deposits in Zinnwald, south of Dresden. The company Deutsche Rohstoff AG, along with its subsidiary Tin International Limited, is pushing ahead with the development of tin reserves in Gottesberg and Geyer in the Westerzgebirge region. And the company Saxony Minerals and Exploration now also plans to prospect for tungsten and tin near the southern Saxony town of Breitenbrunn.

Picture 1: Mining work by the Polish firm KGHM – by company accounts the ninth largest copper producer in the world. KGHM has been authorised by Saxony’s Upper Mining Authority to prospect for copper, lead, zinc and silver deposits in Weißwasser (Eastern Saxony). (Press photo KGHM)

Driving Factors: Raw Material Prices and Good Exploration Data

This boom – now sometimes even referred to as the new “mining rush”– is also reflected in the statistics of Saxony’s Upper Mining Authority. According to Core Task Manager Martin Herrmann, since 2005 the authority has granted 13 mining permits to eight companies to prospect for, and two permits to mine for, ore and spar deposits – not including permits that have expired or been cancelled. Furthermore, there are two competing applications for extraction and another eight for exploration. Herrmann explains the rise in the number of applications on the one hand with increased raw material prices and the danger of scarcity of resources: “This means the availability of domestic raw materials has become much more important than it had been in past decades, both in political and commercial terms.” On the other hand, Herrmann says, companies do not have to start from scratch in Saxony: “Specifically in Saxony for a large number of sites comparatively good exploration data is available from the GDR period.” Saxony’s Ministry of Economic Affairs, he said, has had the data of the 39 most important sites in Saxony brought up to date with a land registry for raw material deposits.

Image 2:Production of a pipe for Nord Stream AG’s Baltic Sea Pipeline at a Europipe plant. To make the pipes used for the pipeline more resistant to corrosion small amounts of molybdenum are alloyed. (Press photo Nord Stream AG)

Copper for the Wire Industry, Molybdenum for Tube Manufacturers

Exploration for copper in the area around Spremberg on the Saxony-Brandenburg border and near Weißwasser is thought to be of particular interest to the wire and cable sector. Copper is still the most important raw material for cable production. According to data supplied by the specialist wire and cable association “Fachverband Kabel und isolierte Drähte”, some 90% of the cable and wire used in the automobile sector comes from copper. According to the copper mining firm “Kupferschiefer Lausitz (KSL)”, there are some 200 million tonnes of exploitable copper ore at the Spremberg site. The company wishes to extract copper ore here as from 2017. According to company spokesperson Pia Verheyen, comprehensive seismic exploration was carried out here in the spring. The results from this are to be published within the next three weeks. The impact of potential copper extraction in Germany on the cable sector hard is difficult to assess at present, says Wolfgang Reitz from the specialist association “Fachverband Kabel und isolierte Drähte”. However, the need to develop new sources is not urgent, he said: “There are no availability issues with copper at present.” Furthermore, domestic copper extraction would scarcely have any impact on the raw material price and therefore neither on wire and cable prices: “In any case, copper prices are determined on the commodities exchange.”

Pipeline manufacturers are also thought to be looking to Saxony. According to Saxony’s Upper Mining Authority, deposits of molybdenum are suspected at several locations and this is precisely what several companies like Tinco Exploration from Canada wish to look for. The metal is considered to be very hard and corrosion-resistant and is used in the production of steel as an alloying element. According to the Australian firm Construction and Development Solutions providing consultancy here, amongst other things, for pipeline projects, steel containing molybdenum, is increasingly being used in pipelines subject to extreme temperatures and environmental influences. The main producers of the metal in 2010 were China, the USA and Chile. America’s scientific authority US Geological Survey pinpoints the largest reserves in China and the USA. The use of molybdenum is also confirmed by pipe manufacturer Europipe which has, amongst other things, produced a large number of the pipes for the Baltic Sea Pipeline. However, only small amounts of the metal are used, said company spokesman Oliver Perret: “In those pipeline steels used by Europipe molybdenum is, if at all, only alloyed at an extremely small percentage of volume.”

Therefore it remains to seen who will benefit from the new mining boom in Saxony. In any case reserve is called for here, says Martin Herrmann from the Saxon Upper Mining Authority: Most plans here are prospective ones.”

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