Is Europe running out of magnesium? And who is to blame for the current crisis? In an interview, materials expert Christoph Schendera talks about Europe's hesitant policies, China's impressively stringent approach and possible alternatives to re-establish European primary production. Part 2
"We need to be bolder in Europe too" (Part 2)
ALUMINIUM: Mr. Schendera, why hasn't Europe developed alternative manufacturing processes for magnesium itself?
Schendera: But that was tried! At Hydro in Porsgrunn, we were working on a primary magnesium process called "SilMag", where we wanted to completely break down olivine into its components iron, silica as well as magnesium. A patent was filed in 2004, we had attracted investors, and the pilot plant in Norway was already running.
In Germany, another project was planned for the recovery of magnesium from filter ash from lignite-fired power plants in the Lower Rhine region, operated by RWE Power. A memorandum of understanding was signed with Australia's Latrobe Magnesium in June 2016 to develop a plant to produce 30,000 metric tons of magnesium per year from the Lower Rhine power plant ashes. Since the early 2000s, there have been quite a few international efforts to establish primary production facilities outside China.
And why have all these projects failed over the years?
Schendera: China has really been very clever at juggling prices. Under the pretext of fulfilling environmental requirements or keeping the air clean shortly before the 2008 Summer Olympics, China has made raw materials scarce. The same is currently true in the run-up to the 2022 Winter Olympics. And the energy bottlenecks that prevail every winter are leading to a further partial shutdown of energy-intensive manufacturing plants and thus to a further shortage of raw materials.
This shortage makes for correspondingly hefty prices. In spring 2021, a ton of magnesium cost slightly more than $2,000. Following the announcement of production cuts in September 2021, the price of magnesium skyrocketed to well over $10,000 per ton.
Price levels around $2,500 to $3,000 are also profitable for the "new projects" outside China, which would never be economic at a low price of around $2,000 per ton. So the Chinese waited to see how project ideas around the world would develop, then returned to their old price levels of $2,000 – and with that, the "new projects" mostly disappeared back into the drawer.
Why can China do this and Europe can't?
Schendera: Of course, you can blame it on the fact that issues such as labor costs, environmental regulations or data protection are handled differently in China than in Europe. Magnesium can also be produced more economically at electricity prices of 0.08 cents – in Germany, the kWh for private households costs 32 cents, which is 40 times more expensive than in the Far East. The same applies to commercial and industrial customers – here, too, Germany led Europe in 2021 – at 12 cents/kWh, the price of electricity in Germany is thus almost twice as high as in other industrialized countries such as France, where the kWh costs just 6.9 cents/kWh. But I think it's also a question of mentality.
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.
In what way?
Schendera: In China, thousands of students conduct targeted research every day on the further development of the lightest metallic material – here in Germany, highly paid professors prefer to compare 80-year-old magnesium alloys with 60-year-old ones ...
In several German research projects, together with the steel manufacturers Salzgitter and Thyssen, well over 70 million euros have been spent on a supposed magnesium sheet development, in order to let the steel producers show at the end that steel sheets are the better alternative.
The Chinese, on the other hand, take an extremely proactive – I would almost say naive – approach to certain issues. They simply dare to do more, they try out many things. In China, to exaggerate, everything that moves is made of magnesium. Today, a Chinese window cleaner moves more magnesium with his bicycle and ladder than the driver of the most modern European automobiles.
"In China, thousands of students conduct targeted research every day on the further development of the lightest metallic material – here in Germany, highly paid professors prefer to compare 80-year-old magnesium alloys with 60-year-old ones ..."
You say magnesium and aluminum could complement each other well. Can you give me an example?
Schendera: Think, for example, of cars in the high-priced segment: Their bodywork is mainly made of aluminum. But because axle load distribution is important, the rear part of the body is often built of steel to balance the mass of the engine. If the front end were constructed from magnesium, aluminum could also be used for the rear end. It would therefore be possible to substitute high-strength steels with aluminum and with magnesium. Magnesium will also play an important role in the field of electromobility, as it provides electromagnetic shielding and high-voltage housings could very well be made of magnesium.
How do we get out of the current situation?
Schendera: I'm not particularly optimistic in the short to medium term. Above all, we need to bring energy prices back down to a normal level – otherwise other industries, such as foundries, will face massive problems and inevitably move out of Germany. I think we also need to be bolder in Europe, to be more confident.
Schendera: Why don't we look into the extraction of magnesium from seawater using electrolysis? This technology is not new. One cubic meter of seawater contains around 3.2 percent salts, and of these 32 kilograms of salt, 1.3 kilograms are magnesium. There are thousands of desalination plants around the world, but the brine is simply dumped back into the sea. In principle, the wind turbine installed on Helgoland could be used to produce primary magnesium instead of hydrogen. China, by the way, has already signaled that it wants to take a look at this technology.
As you say, this kind of thing won't help in the short term.
Schendera: Global dependence on Chinese exports will remain. New players entered the market in 2016/2017 in the form of Turkey and Iran, but both had to contend with teething problems and even had to cease production in the meantime.
The only other projects that made it beyond feasibility studies were four to five in Canada (Alliance Magnesium, MagOne), Australia (Latrobe), USA (Big Blue Technologies) and Romania (Verde Magnesium). These have their sights set on the U.S. market. The project start of the "Verde Magnesium" plant in Romania is scheduled for 2025, so no short- to medium-term risk relief is expected for the European market.
What do you expect instead?
Schendera: I rather fear that we will not succeed in building up German or European primary production for magnesium as energy prices continue to rise. I rather think that, as mentioned before, we will encourage energy-intensive companies to leave Germany.
The only way I can really see is to reach a diplomatic agreement with China.
The interview was conducted by Bernhard Fragner.