The largest lithium deposits in Europe are located in the thermal waters of the country below the upper reaches of the Rhine. Wells several kilometers deep are not suitable for exploitation. Due to past accidents, people are afraid of earthquakes.

Why is lithium so important?

Lithium is essential for lightweight batteries and is therefore a key raw material for the energy transition. It is found in almost every item with a rechargeable battery: a laptop contains about six grams, mobile phones up to three grams, and an electric car between ten and 50 kilograms.

For example: if all 50 million internal combustion engines in Germany were replaced by electric cars, about 500,000 tons of lithium would be needed. For the sake of comparison: in 2021, a total of around 100,000 tons were mined worldwide. The EU Commission assumes that 60 times more lithium will be needed in 2050 than today – only in the EU.

Where does the lithium used now come from?

Lithium is mostly mined in Australian mines, and almost all the rest comes from South America: in the so-called lithium triangle, in the desert region between Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, lithium is dissolved in surface salt lakes. However, in order to extract lithium, huge amounts of water are consumed – which is very problematic.

Almost all lithium in the world that is obtained by mining or extraction – is sent to China – for further processing for the production of batteries.

Germany, therefore, is not the only country that is completely dependent on deliveries from abroad.

Where it is located and how to exploit it is not thereCki lithium?

According to estimates, the largest lithium deposit in Europe is located in southwestern Germany – in thermal water at a depth of several kilometers. Advanced research projects are underway so that it can be produced on an industrial scale.

Lithium will be exploited in an environmentally friendly and CO2 neutral way, and the hot thermal water will be used for heating systems and electricity production at the same time.

To access thermal water, so-called deep geothermal systems are needed. Hydrothermal the geothermal system consists of two wells at a depth between 2000 and 5000 meters: One well pumps thermal water to the surface of the earth. Through the network, that hot water (120-180 Celsius) can be used for heating, and through steam turbines electricity can be generated – which can then be controlled by the pumping system and lithium extraction. Through another well in that closed system, the cooled thermal water is returned underground.

In the future – before returning the cooled water to the ground – lithium should be extracted: the water would be passed through reservoirs that capture lithium ions, which would then be washed from there. The result is lithium chloride, which is converted into lithium hydroxide by electrolysis. In this form, lithium can be sold – for the production of batteries.

Why is there resistance from the local population?

Due to past accidents that have damaged homes, geothermal energy has a bad reputation among many people who live in the lithium mining area.

At the end of 2006, a deep geothermal project in Basel, Switzerland, caused a magnitude 3 earthquake. In-depth was used in the project petrothermal a process that involves drilling underground rock, for example granite, and injecting water: the water breaks up the rock, flows through the cracks, and heats up. Hot water is pumped to the surface through another well and used for heating and electricity generation. In order to create new pathways for water, this method requires at least small deep earthquakes.

At the end of 2019, there was an earthquake in Wendenheim near Strasbourg – and it was used there petrothermal method. Work has been stopped by official order, but the ground has not yet settled. Several earthquakes caused damage on both sides of the Rhine. Insurance companies reimburse only 10 percent of the repair of cracks in houses, but the affected people protest and go to court.

However, hydrothermal the method works differently: Because it uses pre-existing water paths deep in the ground, this method can be used without earthquakes – at least in theory.

Having learned from previous accidents, the regional office for geology, raw materials and mining of Baden-Württemberg now only approves hydrothermal method. On the other hand, in the neighboring state, Rhineland-Palatinate, both methods are still allowed.

Geothermal energy on the groundChoney

Regardless of the geothermal projects, the upper Rhine basin is one of the few earthquake-prone zones in Germany. According to experts, there are hundreds of smaller earthquakes every year, which are often so small that only measuring devices notice them. Further expansion of geothermal energy could lead to an increase in the number and strength of earthquakes.

However, companies and authorities rely on modern technology to avoid vibrations that could damage buildings.

On the one hand, with the help of 3D seismic, a measurement method that can precisely determine the position of rock layers in the country. In this way, it is possible to accurately drill only rock layers where the occurrence of stronger earthquakes is unlikely. In addition, highly sensitive geosensors should also monitor the progress of drilling and ensure that work is stopped even if there are only faint indications that an earthquake has been triggered.

What are the plans for the futurećoff?

The expansion of geothermal energy, and thus the production of unnecessary lithium, will continue, because it is not like there is resistance everywhere.

Just a company Vulcan Energy Resources, according to CEO Horst Kreuter, has eight more projects in the region. In addition, other projects such as EnBW in cooperation with Karlsruhe Institute of Technology KIT are ongoing.

If everything goes according to plan, Germany could become independent of foreign lithium in the foreseeable future.

E2 portal (DW)

Source: E2 Portal by

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