Priceless Find German Geologists Stumble Across Huge Precious Metal Deposit

Geologists have found deposits of the rare metal molybdenum in the Erzgebirge mountain range in eastern Germany. The valuable find has triggered a gold rush mentality in the economically depressed area.


Normally someone who wants to strike a vein of gold or locate deposits of some other valuable metal has to leave the comforts of their office or home, perhaps with a pickax or large drill in hand. But now two geologists from the eastern German state of Saxony have demonstrated there are easier ways to strike pay dirt.

Geologists Kersten Kühn (left) and Wolfgang Schilka explore the mine near Sadisdorf.
Ben Behnke

Geologists Kersten Kühn (left) and Wolfgang Schilka explore the mine near Sadisdorf.

Wolfgang Schilka and Kersten Kühn discovered one of the most valuable mineral deposits to be found in Germany in a long time -- hidden between the covers of file folders in various archives.

According to their research, about 7 million tones of ore with an unusually high concentration of the valuable metal molybdenum are waiting to be extracted from the ground near Sadisdorf, a village of 411 residents in the Erzgebirge mountain range in eastern Germany. The two geologists have already forged plans to begin mining operations within five to 10 years.

Although the general public may be unfamiliar with molybdenum, much modern technology would not work without the awkwardly named mineral. Without this precious ingredient, bird strikes would cause jet engines to explode. And oil pipelines are only capable of withstanding large amounts of pressure because molybdenum provides them with the necessary elasticity.

In Germany, steelmaker ThyssenKrupp is one of the largest consumers of molybdenum. So far, however, the valuable commodity has only been available as an expensive import. Because demand is significantly higher than the supply, the price of molybdenum has skyrocketed within the last decade. And despite the global economic crisis, the rare metal is still considered an extremely good investment.

The world's main producers today are the United States, China, Chile and Peru. The surprising find in the eastern Erzgebirge -- the name translates as Ore Mountains -- could make the German market less dependent on imports in the future. This helps to explain the euphoria with which Tinco Exploration, a Canadian company, greeted the recent discovery. "The project in Saxony is our hottest commodity," says Tinco exploration manager Rainer Lehne, referring to the unexpected discovery of the molybdenum deposit.

In 2007, Tinco obtained a permit to conduct test digs for the metals tin and tungsten on the grounds of the Sadisdorf copper mine, which was shut down in 1953. Late last year, however, the Canadian investor appeared to have abandoned the project. As a result of the financial crisis, it had "become very difficult to pursue exploration projects," the Vancouver-based company said at the time.

Map: The Erzgebirge
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Map: The Erzgebirge

But in recent weeks the company suddenly rekindled its interest in digging. The reason? Schilka and Kühn, who had been working as geologists on the Canadian company's digging project, had found molybdenum -- purely by accident.

The two mining veterans had gathered documents from 11 different archives to prepare to drill for tungsten. In the process, they stumbled upon the results of five test drills conducted in 1984 and 1988, when the area was still part of communist East Germany.

The only problem was that the two different drilling teams apparently had no knowledge of each another. Only by combining the test data from both exploratory drills were the geologists able to discover the treasure hidden in the ground in the former ore mining region. Schilka and Kühn were the first to put together the pieces of the puzzle. "Our predecessors simply overlooked it at the time," Schilka says. "But, then again, they weren't looking for molybdenum."

Molybdenum has been mined in Sadisdorf before, during World War I, when it was produced -- albeit in small amounts -- for a short time and used to make cannon for the Kaiser's army.

Ore containing molybdenum: The geologists stumbled upon the deposit after studying old archives.
Ben Behnke

Ore containing molybdenum: The geologists stumbled upon the deposit after studying old archives.

Schilka marvels over the fact that this is the biggest find of the metal worldwide in recent years. The high concentration of the costly mineral in the rock -- a ton of ore from the Sadisdorf mine yields one kilogram of molybdenum -- is also unusual, says Schilka. "This is five times the concentration being mined internationally," he says enthusiastically. He believes that a molybdenum mine in the Erzgebirge could be productive for a period of 30 years.

Since the local press first reported the story, a gold rush mentality has taken hold in the economically undeveloped region. For the time being, however, geologist Kühn is the only one putting in more hours as a result. "After an article like this," he complains, "I'll have 50 job applications on my desk the next day."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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