"Magnesium is criminally underestimated" (Part 1)

January 12, 2022

Is Europe running out of magnesium? And who is to blame for the current crisis? In this interview, materials expert Christoph Schendera talks about Europe's hesitant policy, China's impressively stringent approach and possible alternatives to re-establish European primary production. Part 1

ALUMINIUM: Mr. Schendera, in recent weeks, warnings of magnesium shortages in Europe have been piling up. Are they to be taken seriously?

Christoph Schendera: Yes, we have a massive problem. With the exception of a few tons from Israel and Turkey, Europe's annual demand of 160,000 tons is almost completely covered by Chinese primary magnesium. Besides China, these are the only magnesium producers that export. All other producing countries require more magnesium than they produce themselves. In the EU, magnesium has not been produced since 2002, but only recycled, which is why we are dependent on imports.


And who is to blame for this? China?

Schendera: The Chinese approach is extremely stringent, no question. But the problem is also homemade. When I was Market Development Manager at Hydro Magnesium at the beginning of 2000, we were the largest single producer of primary magnesium and magnesium alloys, with just under 90,000 metric tons per year, and we worked with our customers to develop components and, where necessary, the corresponding alloys or production processes.

In return, they have undertaken to purchase the raw material from us over a certain period. At the same time, however, OEMs and Tier 1s have been sourcing more and more magnesium from China, where the price per kilogram is a few cents lower.


With what result?

Schendera: With the result that Hydro Magnesium shut down the primary plant in Porsgrunn, Norway in 2001 and then the world's largest and most modern primary plant in Bécancour, Canada in 2007. Production was no longer competitive with Chinese producers – bringing to an end an era that had lasted over 55 years.


Why do you think magnesium is so important?

Schendera: From my perspective, magnesium is a criminally underestimated material. It is not only the most important alloying element for the aluminum industry for improving strength, toughness and corrosion resistance – magnesium is also an important material for ideal lightweight construction in combination with aluminum, high-strength steels or fiber-reinforced plastics.

From my point of view, aluminum and magnesium represent the ideal material combination in modern lightweight construction due to their physical and mechanical material properties, processability and recyclability. But we have not managed to establish magnesium accordingly. But magnesium has also not received the support it needs from policymakers – we have watched a magnesium monopoly being developed in China.








Christoph Schendera is managing director of the European Research Association Magnesium e.V. (EFM) in Aalen, Germany. The mechanical engineer / materials scientist has worked for the German Aerospace Center, the Boeing Company in Seattle, the Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials and Hydro Magnesium, among others, and is the founder and owner of MagXpert Consulting in Düsseldorf.

What do you mean by that?

Schendera: European and, in particular, German politicians have put themselves on the sidelines with their energy policy. Electricity prices in Germany have more than doubled in the last 20 years due to taxes, CO2 levies and network charges.

So we have blithely turned the electricity price screw, watched as energy-intensive companies have gradually moved out of Europe and China has secured more and more strategically important raw materials worldwide. And has thus risen to become the world's most important producer of raw materials.


And no one warned about this development?

Schendera: Of course, there have always been warnings. But when we as the European Research Association for Magnesium argued in Berlin that magnesium is an important strategic material, that the Chinese primary producers were consolidating further, and that the implementation of stricter environmental regulations could lead to massive shortages and associated price jumps, we were laughed at.

Even the warnings from the powerful aluminum associations were ignored. Magnesium, after all, ended up on the list of Critical Raw Materials, but the explosive nature of it was not really recognized, and now we are seeing the result.

"Magnesium has not received the support it needs from policymakers – we have watched a magnesium monopoly being developed in China."

So what did China do right at the same time?

Schendera: In the mid-1970s, China started producing magnesium using the relatively simple Pidgeon process. Until the mid-1990s, annual production was less than 10,000 tons. By 2000, it had risen to more than 200,000 tons. Today, China produces between 800,000 and 1,000,000 metric tons of primary magnesium, or about 90 percent of the world's annual production.


Why was the decision in favor of this process so effective?

Schendera: Until the end of the 1990s, the electrolysis process, which is still used today to produce primary aluminum, was the state-of-the-art process. However, the Pidgeon process has the advantage that it has a fivefold lower investment and can also use unskilled – and therefore cheap – labor. Heating evacuated steel tubes and waiting for magnesium to condense is fairly simple.

In addition, the Chinese now use coke gases as an energy source instead of coal waste, and thus emissions are only marginally higher than those for the production of primary aluminum.

The quality today is also comparable to that of electrolytically produced magnesium. As a result, they were able to offer inexpensive magnesium relatively quickly. However, the support that Hydro Magnesium has been able to offer its customers is still lacking today.


And how have Western producers and customers reacted?

Schendera: As was to be expected. Mainly under the price pressure of the automotive industry, the large European and American companies gradually closed their magnesium production facilities. All the major producers had agreements with individual car manufacturers at the time, but when the contracts expired, they opted for the cheaper Chinese magnesium.


Read the 2nd part of the interview here


The interview was conducted by Bernhard Fragner.