Lithium is the substance that is supposed to drive the energy and transport transition. The lightest metal on earth is in all modern batteries for electromobility and our modern communication does not work without energy storage containing lithium.
The Upper Rhine area is to become an important lithium production area worldwide
The silvery white-grey metal is a beacon of technological hope and an object of economic speculation and is increasingly the subject of bitter disputes. It is about fundamental economic and ecological questions, about profit-oriented companies and comprehensive civil protest. Australia, Chile, China and Argentina are still the main producing countries supplying the world. Now Germany should also be in this row.
That says Horst Kreuter, Managing Director of Vulcan Energy Germany based in Karlsruhe. The listed company took over a geothermal power plant in Insheim, Palatinate, from the local energy supplier in 2021, wants to filter lithium from the deep water, which is up to 160 degrees, on a large scale, and develop the Upper Rhine area between Basel and Karlsruhe into one of the largest lithium production areas in the world .
Citizens’ initiative considers plans to be economically naïve and fears earthquakes
This economic euphoria of the company Vulcan Energy is opposed by a growing number of citizens in the region who distrust the promise of the combination of heat production, electricity generation and lithium production that sounds so perfect. For Thomas Hans, representative of the citizens’ initiative for deep geothermal energy in Karlsruhe, the plans are far too naive from an economic point of view, district heating only works in the very close vicinity, the electricity from these power plants is too expensive and lithium production is far too energy-intensive to be profitable. Above all, however, there would be the real danger of earthquakes that emanate from such drilling.
Seismologists: There are risks, but they are acceptable
Stefan Wiemer, seismologist and professor of earth sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich on the subject of “risk of earthquakes” agrees.
For the seismologist Stefan Wiemer, the question of whether the opportunities or the risks are more important in geothermal drilling can ultimately only be answered politically.
According to Professor Jörg-Detlef Eckhardt, the risk is acceptable. The President of the Baden-Württemberg State Office for Geology, Raw Materials and Mining (LGRB) in Freiburg and his team are responsible for approving geothermal projects on the German side of the Upper Rhine Graben.
The Upper Rhine Graben is one of the most intensively studied regions in Europe. Here, at a depth of three to four kilometers, there are permeable rock formations in which hot deep water with lithium dissolved in it circulates. Jörg-Detlef Eckhardt emphasizes that if his authority approves drilling here, that is justifiable from a geological point of view.
Local residents are concerned and speak out against deep geothermal energy
Such words do not reassure many residents of the region. In Honau, north of Offenburg, for example, there was a great deal of damage to houses when the earth trembled in connection with drilling in the French geothermal power plant in Vendenheim near Strasbourg. Large campaigns for signatures show that 95 percent of the region’s inhabitants are against deep geothermal energy. When it comes to assessing the safety of geothermal wells, opinions clash.
Alternatively: produce lithium hydroxide yourself and relocate value creation to Germany
The overall picture also includes the question of what role lithium production on the Upper Rhine can play for Germany’s supply at all. The lithium companies active on the Upper Rhine are enthusiastic about the economic opportunities, but elsewhere they are much more skeptical.
For Rolf Wehrspohn, Managing Director of the German Lithium Institute in Halle an der Saale, for example, it makes little sense to rely on lithium production on the Upper Rhine that may start at some point.
The German Lithium Institute therefore wants to shift the added value for the valuable raw material to Germany and set up its own production facilities here in order to produce battery-capable lithium hydroxide from lithium minerals. A process that is currently taking place mainly in China. To this end, the first so-called converter is being built in Guben, south of Eisenhüttenstadt on the Polish border, and is scheduled to go into operation in 2026. Around 24,000 tons of lithium hydroxide are to be produced annually from lithium delivered from Canada, enough to equip around 500,000 electric cars with lithium-ion batteries. Four more of these plants are planned in Germany, and a total of 20 are needed throughout Europe to become independent of Asian producers in particular.
Recycling: 90 percent of lithium can be recovered from old batteries
Another strategy for the future lithium supply in Germany is: recycling. The necessary recycling technology is on the way to being ready for the market. 90 percent of the lithium contained in old batteries can now be recovered and used to manufacture new batteries.
For the engineer Reiner Sojka of the Aachen company Accurec Recycling GmbH, the reuse of lithium is the real topic of the future.
Fronts on the Upper Rhine have hardened
So if there is more and more reused lithium in the future and more and more battery raw materials manufactured in Germany from safe lithium sources – then that will put economic pressure on the plans for lithium production in the Upper Rhine area.
For companies like Vulcan Energy, which want to operate lithium extraction from the hot deep water of the Upper Rhine area as a business model, there is a lot at stake. A lot of money has already been invested in the region, the shareholders have to be kept happy and the expansion of planned geothermal plants has to be promoted. Vulcan Energy Managing Director Horst Kreuter says that he takes the arguments against his own activities very seriously, especially the repeatedly mentioned risk of earthquakes, even if there are many things he cannot understand.
Among those with whom geothermal companies hardly or not at all talk anymore are the representatives of the citizens’ initiative for deep geothermal energy such as Thomas Hans from Karlsruhe:
The fronts on the Upper Rhine have hardened, companies and citizens’ initiatives have little to say to each other. Ultimately, the question is how to look at the future of “lithium extraction through geothermal energy”. Companies consider them safe and see great economic opportunities, activists from the citizens’ initiative for deep geothermal energy do not want to live with the danger of earthquakes. The debate about lithium production on the Upper Rhine will continue.