A massive underground deposit of high-grade phosphate rock in Norway, pitched as the world’s largest, is big enough to satisfy world demand for fertilisers, solar panels and electric car batteries over the next 100 years, according to the company exploiting the resource

Phosphate rock is an essential element used in the production of phosphorous for the fertiliser industry and was included in the European Commission’s March proposal for a Critical Raw Materials Act.

The Norwegian deposit is estimated to be worth 70 billion tonnes at least, which is just under the 71 billion tonnes of proven world reserves as evaluated by the US Geological Survey in 2021.

By far the largest phosphate rock deposits in the world – around 50 billion tonnes – are situated in the Western Sahara region of Morocco. The next biggest are located in China (3.2 billion tonnes), Egypt (2.8 billion tonnes), and Algeria (2.2bn tonnes), according to US estimates.

“The discovery is indeed great news, which would contribute to the objectives of the Commission’s proposal on the Critical Raw Material Act,” said a spokesperson for the EU executive.


Electric cars and solar panels

About 90% of the world’s mined phosphate rock is used in agriculture for the production of phosphorous for the fertiliser industry, for which there is currently no substitute.

But phosphorous is also used in the production of solar panels and lithium-iron-phosphate batteries (LFP) for electric cars, as well as semiconductors and computer chips – although in small quantities.

“This is why we believe the phosphorous that we can produce will be important to the West – it provides autonomy,” Wurmser told EURACTIV in an interview.

The amounts of phosphorous needed for battery production are currently tiny, and are forecasted to represent only around 5% of global demand by 2050, according to an article published last year in the scientific journal Nature.

The amounts of phosphorous needed for battery production are currently tiny, and are forecasted to represent only around 5% of global demand by 2050, according to an article published last year in the scientific journal Nature.

However, major producing countries like China and the US “may seek to protect their domestic supplies by restricting exports, as was seen in 2008 with China’s export tariff,” the Nature article continues. Future supply disruptions are therefore “likely to be geopolitical and economic in nature, long before global reserves are exhausted,” it adds.

Known reserves of high-grade phosphate rock are slowly depleting and held by four or five big suppliers outside Europe, according to the Critical Raw Materials Alliance, an industry coalition.

“Low supply combined with high demand means a price increase,” it adds.

Phosphorous refining is also a highly carbon-intensive process, meaning most of the industry is currently concentrated in China, Vietnam and Kazakhstan, Wurmser says.

“This is part of the reason why there is no more production of this critical raw material in Europe – there was some production in the Netherlands many years ago, but they stopped it because of the heavy pollution,” he explains.

But according to Wurmser, Norway will be able to observe stricter environmental standards when digging out and refining those minerals than Asian competitors currently do, by applying carbon capture and storage technology.

“The phosphorus from China, Vietnam or Kazakhstan doesn’t make a solar panel necessarily a green product. So that underlines our concept that sustainability begins in the ground, when you dig stuff out,” he says.

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