Aluminum production is petering out in Germany, with a factory in the northern town of Stade the only one to still make aluminum oxide from bauxite it gets from Guinea. Godehard Weyerer reports.
Everything here on the compound of the aluminum oxide factory in Stade seems to be supersized. There are 30-meter-(98-feet-) high silos standing next to each other right beside silvery pipes sprawling on several levels.
A 70-meter pillar with two chimneys on top towers everything in the vicinity as white vapor escapes toward the sky above. The company compound extends to 55 hectares.
The firm was founded in 1973 and is now the only factory left in Germany that still produces aluminum oxide, the stuff that aluminum is made of. The firm is located directly on the banks of the Elbe River.
It has its own port, used by vessels shipping bauxite from Guinea to Stade. That's a big plus logistically, as the company's chief executives, Volker Richter and Hartmut Borchers point out. "And that's probably the main reason why we're still doing what we're doing here today."
Bauxite from Guinea
Producing aluminum oxide is a very energy-intensive process. For just one ton of it, you need about as much energy as an ordinary four-person household consumes in a year. The factory makes a total of 1 million tons annually.
Aluminum oxide is retrieved from bauxite, with the biggest deposits of it located near the equator. Stade gets its supplies from Guinea, which has lately been the scene of protests.
If you depend on a steady flow of raw material supplies, having a port of your own can come in handy
"In the mining regions, people have been relocated and water sources have been contaminated by chemicals during bauxite mining while locals are complaining about air pollution," says Michael Reckorth, a mineral resources expert with PowerShift. The association that campaigns for a just global energy and economic system.
"Guinea has lodged a complaint against the World Bank, with 540 people from the bauxite mining areas in the north of the African nation joining forces." The court action is taking place in Washington where the World Bank is headquartered. In contrast to the critics of the mining endeavor, the international lender views it as a contribution to Guinea's economic development. This is why it recently granted the biggest mining company in the nation a credit line of $900 million (€809 million).
A third of the loan has been underwritten by Germany, conditional on bauxite deliveries to Stade.
The bauxite from Guinea is broken up under high pressure and ground in Stade. For the process, the factory needs 100,000 cubic meters of soda lye which serves as a solvent.
The company employs 500 people, making it the third-largest employer in the Stade region. Some 50 young people are currently being trained in the factory, among them Jurik Mendel.
"I'm being trained as an electronics engineer for automation technology," he says. CEO Hartmut Borchers knows that the last remaining aluminum oxide factory in Germany needs to groom its future workers.
This red mud dump near Stade isn't exactly what many people want to have in their vicinity, but local authorities say it's safe
The Stade plant is grappling with fierce competition from abroad, particularly China, with half of the world's aluminum oxide already being produced there. To make 1 ton of the oxide, you need twice as much bauxite, leaving red mud as a residue.
The latter gets transported to a landfill some five kilometers (3.1 miles) away from Stade where a 15-meter-high dyke keeps the mud in check. The landfill gets bigger every year. In 2010, the western Hungarian village of Kolontar saw a similar dyke burst, covering the adjacent areas with layers of soda-lye-containing mud. Borchers is confident something like this could not happen near Stade.
"Through special wells around the landfill authorities check whether the dyke has any leaks, and they do that around the clock," he says, adding that there haven't been any complaints so far within the past 45 years.
Borchers is more concerned at the prospect of energy prices being hiked further in the country as a result of Germany's transition toward renewables. He fears this could mean the end of domestic aluminum production.
He reckons the German government should have no interest in this happening. After all, he reasons, the metal is required for many industries, including construction and the car industry. And who wants to be totally dependent on foreign suppliers?