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Hunting for high-tech metals in northern Germany: Researchers at Jacobs University are coordinating a promising research project

Auf der Suche nach Hochtechnologiemetallen in Norddeutschland


June 26, 2017

Under a thick layer of sediment, northern Germany may hold not only zinc and lead, but also
high-technology metals of economic and strategic significance, such as gallium, germanium,
indium and lithium. A new research project entitled “MinNoBeck”, under the leadership of
Jacobs University in Bremen, is using cutting-edge geoscientific methods to examine drill
cores and formation waters from oil and gas exploration and production, with the goal of
investigating these potential resources.

Are there ore deposits beneath the surface of northern Germany? And if so, how did the ore minerals
form and what types of hot hydrothermal waters were involved? These questions are being addressed
by the joint project “MinNoBeck” which is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research
as part of the program “r4 – Innovative Technologies for Resource Efficiency – Research for the
Provision of Economically Strategic Raw Materials”, and which is coordinated by Professor Michael
Bau and Dr. Dennis Krämer at Jacobs University in Bremen.
In the scope of the project “MinNoBeck – Resource Potential of Hidden Hydrothermal Mineralization in
the North German Basin”, researchers are now for the first time examining formation waters and rock
samples from oil and gas drilling in the North German Basin, which extends from the North and Baltic
Seas to the edge of the uplands in southern Germany, hunting for deposits of high-tech metals.  

The fact that there are deposits of lead, zinc and copper at depths as deep as 3,500 meters is already
known, thanks to exploration drilling for oil and gas in Lower Saxony and in the Altmark. However, to
date there has been no systematic investigation of these mineralizations. Cutting-edge methods of
analysis should now give geoscientists more detailed information on which raw materials are to be
found in these drill cores. This joint project has a term of three years and is being funded with 1.6
million euros by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) as part of its r4 research
focus, entitled “r4 – Innovative Technologies for Research Efficiency – Research for the Provision of
Economically Strategic Raw Materials” within the broader program of “Research for Sustainable
Development (FONA)”. Participants in the project include the Friedrich Alexander University Erlangen-
Nürnberg, the Georg August University of Göttingen and Germany’s geo-research center, the
GeoForschungsZentrum (GFZ) in Potsdam, all under the leadership of Jacobs University Bremen.

Through their research, the scientists involved are looking for details on the formation of ore deposits
in the North German Basin and aim at developing new concepts for the detection of sediment-covered
deep-seated metal deposits. The mineralizations have been encountered during drilling at depths of
down to 3,500 meters, which means any extraction would not only be difficult, but probably also too
expensive. “These drill cores nevertheless represent excellent archives when it comes to
reconstructing the formation of ore deposits and researching metal transport in sedimentary basins in
more detail”, says Dr. Dennis Krämer, one of the scientists in the Working Group on Resource and
Environmental Geochemistry at Jacobs University. “It’s also important to compile a database on the
inventory of these mineralizations and their metal contents, so that we are able to estimate resource
potential in general. All these findings could then be applied to other regions”, he says, “for the
discovery of high-tech metal deposits that are closer to the surface”.

The German (and European) economy is now more than ever reliant on a sustainable and secure
supply of mineral raw materials. High-tech metals, in particular, are an important prerequisite for future
technologies like wind energy or electromobility. These economically relevant high-tech metals include
the rare earth elements which are required for displays and permanent magnets used in wind turbines,
for example. For other, previously rather “exotic” elements like indium, germanium and gallium, new
high-tech applications are also increasingly opening up.  

 “All these metals are only rarely found at concentrations that could economically justify starting a
mining operation, but are rather produced as by-products of base metal mining”, says Professor
Michael Bau, who is Professor of Geoscience and Geochemistry at Jacobs University and the project
leader of MinNoBeck. “Within the MinNoBeck project, we are not only focusing on mineral deposits in
the North German Basin; we are also examining formation waters. These deep waters come from
well-below the depths from which groundwater originates, and are brought to the surface by oil and
gas production, The water is generally very “salty” and can contain high concentrations of high-tech
raw materials”, Bau goes on to say.  

During the three-year joint project, partners from science and industry will work together. The drill
cores and formation waters are made available by the MinNoBeck partners ExxonMobil Production
Deutschland GmbH, ENGIE E&P Deutschland GmbH, Vermilion Energy Germany GmbH & Co. KG
and Wintershall Holding GmbH.

The background: exotic metals as sought-after critical high-tech raw materials  
With a few exceptions, no economically significant deposits of high-tech metals have been found in
Central Europe yet. Mining of rare earths, for example, is essentially limited to China and to a lesser
extent the USA and Australia. The same applies to many other strategic high-technology raw
materials. The German and European economies are directly dependent on these few suppliers.
Hence, any fluctuation and bottlenecks in supplies which may be caused by geopolitical crisis,  are
hard to balance out. These raw materials have, therefore, been labelled “critical” by European and
American policy makers. German industry, in particular, is reliant on a secure and continuous supply
of such raw materials in order to ensure and foster the competitiveness of Germany as a supplier of
high-tech products.

The potential of the North German Basin for critical metals of economic-strategic significance has
barely been investigated so far, in spite of existing indications that there may be deposits. Thanks to
the industrial partners involved in the project, it is now for the first time possible to make use of
exploration drill cores from the oil and gas industries for research in the framework of MinNoBeck in
order to better understand the formation of metal deposits below the surface of sediment basins, and
to evaluate the potential of the North German Basin.  


More information:

Questions will be answered by:
Prof. Dr. Michael Bau | Professor of Geosciences
m.bau [at] | Tel.: +49 421 200-3564