Interview: “The sea4value Approach Can Help to Supply Europe With Sustainably Sourced Raw Materials.”

by | 2. May 2022 - 10:48 | Technologies

Last summer we reported on Sea4Value. The EU-funded project aims to develop technologies for recovering minerals and metals such as gallium, indium and lithium from seawater desalination concentrates known as brines. One of the project partners is DECHEMA, an expert network for chemical engineering and biotechnology in Germany.

Dr. Daniel Frank, project manager for water management at DECHEMA, answered’s questions about this research project which could make brine another source of raw materials in the EU alongside mining and recycling.

Dr. Frank, Sea4Value is a joint European project involving a total of 17 partners. How would you describe the cooperation in such a mammoth project?

Challenging is probably the best word. We started our project in June 2020 and since then have never had an actual physical meeting, only online. But that means you tend to concentrate on the essentials. We also have a Ukrainian partner in the project team, the Dniprovsk State Technical University. As a consortium, we are currently doing everything we can to support the institution and its employees, but who knows how the situation will develop.

What is DECHEMA’s specific task in the project network?

DECHEMA’s main task was to set up and develop the database in which the analyses of the samples are listed. This shows at a glance how the metal and salt concentrations are distributed around the world.

At present, we are concentrating on developing a marketing concept for the products recovered. In most of our projects, this basically involves mediating between science and industry, which is one of our great strengths. We are not only in regular contact with our partners, but above all with stakeholders along the whole value chain for each of the nine elements and their products. Our project approach is still new and is definitely viewed with some suspicion. We need to convince people that Sea4Value can guarantee stable supply chains and consistently high product quality.

The project is scheduled to run until the end of May 2024 and is divided into several phases. The collection and analysis of water samples to determine their mineral composition has now been completed. Over 100 samples have been taken from a number of countries in Africa, Arabia, Europe and even Latin America. Are there any signs yet as to which region promises the largest deposits?

Interestingly, that depends on the element. Some coastal strips have a lot of magnesium, while at other sampling sites we have been able to analyze comparatively high lithium concentrations. The modular approach allows us to apply different aspects of the technologies – each tailored to the specific location of the desalination plant, depending on the contents of the products to be recovered.

Underground brine has also been sampled in Czerwionka-Leszczyny, Poland. Can you say at this stage whether this “land resource” will also be suitable for raw material extraction?

In principle, I think it would be a mistake to exclude any resource from the outset. If, however, it turns out during exploration that processing does not make ecological or economic sense, this resource, or in our case this site, would have to be shelved and we should focus on other data. Nevertheless, at the moment we think that the underground brine you mentioned is very promising for some critical raw materials, especially lithium.

The technical feasibility is soon to be tested in mobile laboratories in eastern Spain and on the Canary Islands. What is the difference between the two locations?

We have partners at both locations, so we can be sure that the two sites are constantly supervised. We are investigating the technical feasibility: at this stage, we are not talking about an industrial-scale plant. But if we want to operate on an island, we should already start thinking about the most efficient way to transport chemicals and the extracted products. In addition to other factors, our market analysis focusses particularly on transport costs. These have to be critically evaluated given the “island” factor, in case there is no guarantee that the Sea4Value products can be used locally.

Dr. Daniel Frank, Project Manager Water Management DECHEMA e. V.
Photo source: DECHEMA e. V.

At first glance, the overall project sounds like a win-win situation: Europe will become more self-sufficient in its supply of raw materials, less of the highly saline brine will end up in the sea, there will be more drinking water and a completely new business model will open up for seawater desalination plants. But are there any obstacles to the establishment of the technology?

Where are there none? Unfortunately, we are not developing the next iPhone, but are working in a field where people’s awareness is only gradually being aroused. The war in Ukraine, and the continuing Covid crisis, are only now making people realize that supply chains are not stable and showing the impact of this factor on the European economy. The Sea4Value approach can help to supply Europe with sustainably sourced raw materials, but first of all, we not only have to solve the technical challenges of this research project, but also arouse and maintain the interest of market players. A lot of our talks with players currently follow the same pattern: Sounds good, how much can you supply? We don’t have an answer to that question yet. We can’t (yet) provide reliable forecasts about quantities because no final location for a production facility has been defined. In addition, we are still operating in the field of water treatment – a topic that should and must work, but which unfortunately sparks little interest beyond the specialist community.

How can these obstacles be eliminated or how can politics help?

The term “politics” is too general here; a wide variety of bodies are involved. The EU Commission has already launched strategies on how to create a stable supply of raw materials. Sea4Value is just one small component that receives funds and that can and will certainly make a contribution. But when we talk about supply chains, we must at some point ask ourselves the question as to where our material comes from and under what conditions it was recovered/produced? Too little attention is paid to this when it comes to imports; price is still often the decisive criterion – even if companies are starting to rethink.  

Back in 2008, the EU Commission’s Raw materials initiative identified Europe’s supply of critical raw materials as crucial to the good functioning of the EU economy. 14 years later, dependence on imports has not been significantly reduced. Future technologies such as electromobility will lead to even more increases in the foreseeable future. Have policymakers failed to take some decisive steps?

Certainly. In the same way as “the market” is always looking for the best margin. Globalization has opened up a lot of opportunities for overcoming hurdles, but we see on a day-to-day basis that a global trading network with low storage capacity and production “on-demand” can be very fragile. Longer-term considerations certainly give projects like Sea4Value the chance to assert themselves as a potential additional pillar of resource extraction. In the short term, however, new trade agreements will (have to) be concluded and, ideally, greater attention will then also be paid to making more sustainable and conscious choices about where goods come from.

In recent months, there has been an increase in the number of reports on the extraction of raw materials from secondary sources and the mining / development of new deposits outside China. This is not likely to go unnoticed in the People’s Republic: Have Chinese companies already contacted you?

Yes. We are also in close touch with players from the Gulf region and Australia.

What are the next steps at Sea4Value?

First of all we will continue to develop our technological approaches. This will be followed by the construction of the mobile plant. At the same time we are constantly talking to companies and multipliers so that our approach to recovering critical raw materials and increasing water recovery from desalination plants is not forgotten and we can serve the markets of the future.

Thank you very much for this interview.

More information about this project can be found here.

Photo: iStock/Nuno Valadas

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