Coveted metals

Coveted metals

The researchers are setting up their jobs. Photo: Monika Müller What: FR

Wolfgang Industrial Park in Hanau explores a new Fraunhofer Project Group, as valuable materials can be replaced by the rare earths or recycled better.

Bacteria can make the most valuable of old phones. Microbiologist Stefan Ratering treats - already dismantled - disused mobile phones with micro-organisms, to dissolve the rare earths from them. Tries recycling specialist Claudia Güth, to involve the largest possible amount of the precious resource of fluorescent tubes and light bulbs, the coated surfaces of these metals are sought. In the fine grinding of the starting material, researchers use various tools: small beads about, able to afford the large grinding work.

Roland Gauss in turn is mainly concerned with "high-performance permanent magnets", as including in hard drives, Used cars and wind turbines. The scientist and archaeologist working, how to recycle or reuse these magnets and the materials can be optimized so, that it requires a small amount of rare earth.

The three scientists working for the new "Fraunhofer Project Group for material cycles and resource strategy" in Hanau, which began its work last fall. Currently, researchers are, to set up their labs in the Industrial Park Hanau-Wolfgang. You use this room on the fourth floor of the company "Umicore", an international group of materials technology, has naturally very interested in progress in recycling and replacement of materials.

Planned construction

However, the country in "Umicore" is only an interim solution, later, the scientists are working in a new building, is currently looking for the Fraunhofer Society and the City of Hanau a suitable surface. Economic Affairs Officer Ralf-Rainer Piesold (FDP) speaks of "one of the most important settlements in recent years", also the high-tech company based in Hanau benefits come.

Hanau is not however the only seat this project group: In parallel, Fraunhofer has settled in Alzenau, Bavaria. The scientists from both sites will continue to work closely; Moreover, there is an intensive cooperation with the universities of Darmstadt, Pour, Wuerzburg and Augsburg.

At present, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft employs six scientists in Hanau, in Alzenau, there are 14. Overall, the team should at these two sites once 50 to 60 Include employee, says Stefan Ratering. In the construction of the two facilities, the State of Hesse and the Free State of Bavaria invest a total of nearly 50 Million euros in the coming years.

The focus of research is the search for methods, in particular, the rare earth, but also critical metals, recover and to find substitutes and modes of action, Unfold the same effect. Not an easy task, for this reason alone, because Rare earth are mixed in the finished products were often other substances and must be separated chemically complex.

Furthermore, employees are to advise government and industry, as is to be achieved, among other, that devices, containing these substances, not simply end up in the waste. Critical metals bear this name, "Because they fear, they could not eventually be as readily available, about, because stocks are running low ", explains Stefan Ratering; Gold is one of the group.

The situation is different with the rare earths, which is the main focus of the Fraunhofer scientists. The resource group for these "rare earth metals" include 17 chemical elements, names such as lanthanum, Holmium, Europium or neodymium lay mostly say nothing, but are the indispensable part of modern technology: They are found in mobile phones, Televisions, Hybrid- and electric motors, in spark plugs, the hard drives of computers, in headphones and speakers, in energy-saving lamps and LED lights, in batteries and accumulators, strong magnets for wind turbines, tomography in nuclear medicine, in the control rods of nuclear reactors, in polishes and dental fillings made of plastic.

And the demand for rare earths is growing constantly, says Roland Gaussian. It is estimated that it will in the coming years from the current worldwide 135.000 almost 200.000 Rise metric tons per year.

Unlike its name suggests, it, the rare earths are not actually rare, their supplies could range far. The difficulties in these metals are of a different nature: The degradation is often associated with inhumane conditions: "It's a dirty mining", says Stefan Ratering, "The workers come into Contact with many acids and alkalis. "also, adds Roland Gaussian, Rare earths are often "associated" with radioactive substances - that is,: They come together before - and pollute the environment through their degradation of a whole region.

Energy change increases demand

A background, should not be left out even if the energy transition, Roland is Gaussian, the man with the magnet as a specialty. Kilo, these are required for the engines in the new wind farms, the rare earth metals are an essential component in: "There should also be the story before production, the material cycle, know ", Gauss says, is the "holistic view" even in the green energy of the important. "Wind power is a major reason for the enormous increase in demand for permanent magnets", he says.

Economically problematic is the fact, China, as in the rare earths with more 97 Percent of the world has a monopoly of flow - and therefore the prices dictated this enormously driven up because of the growing demand, partly in order to 4000 Percent, as Professor Gerhard Sextl, Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Silicate and initiator of the new project group, says.

The research results from Hanau and Alzenau to help, become more independent from this price policy of China, by new ways are found, the rare metals recycle or replace. Their research objects - cell phones, old computer parts, Magnets, Electrical appliances of all kinds - the scientists get it from company, from scrap dealers or from a drugstore chain, where citizens can drop off your lights.

The "targeted collection" of discarded objects with the precious commodities will, given the complex issue of rare earths and more important, says Roland Gaussian. It also requires a significant rethinking of the company: So far, most mobile phone owners take their discarded carelessly away models; less than five percent come in Germany in the recycling companies to.

Tap into junkyards

And so it is not surprising, that, according to the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources has only one percent of all rare earths used is recycled in Germany. This condition also want to change with the help of their research, the Fraunhofer researchers. Europe has no rare earths are encouraged. However: "It's about, their urban reservoirs to tap ", Gauss says. What he means? The scientist laughs: "Our junkyards for example. What is there around, we need to understand how commodities. "

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