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The World’s new white gold: A mineral, not a metal

BY MICHAEL WURMSER
FOUNDER, COO & DEPUTY CEO OF NORGE MINING

I recently wrote a blog about phosphorus, where we quoted a UK scientist referencing phosphate supply as “one of the most important issues in the world today”. I am always on the look-out for varying opinions regarding phosphorus and its global supply solutions.

The latest news story to pique my interest is a podcast and video clip posted by BBC News World Service on how human waste can be used to help the planet – by extracting the phosphorus we ourselves produce.

9.7 billion people by 2050

Phosphorus, turned into phosphate fertiliser, is an essential mineral nutrient that farmers use to germinate crops so they can feed our ever-growing population. It’s optimal for growth and productivity. However, there is a critical supply shortage and, according to this latest BBC investigation, if it runs out, we won’t survive. The podcast states: “Fertilisers are our friend. By increasing the food yields, they’ve helped world’s population to triple in the last century. We will definitely need fertilisers to feed the 9.7 billion predicted to be on the planet by 2050”.

Human phosphorus producers

The investigation proposes that human sewage may be an answer to our limited phosphorus supply. According to the BBC story, we each produce 500 grams of it a year. Putting water waste through a rigorous process involving bacteria, sludge, draining and magnesium, fertiliser granules can be produced; in fact, a Dutch treatment plant is already doing just that. While we support the circular economy and smart solutions that are environmentally-friendly, we don’t think the world has got to the point that it needs to extract phosphorus from sewage. And that’s because the world has yet to wake up to the knowledge that Norway Is sitting on large untapped reserves of phosphorus – on Europe’s doorstep.

Price shocks

At the moment, approximately 80 per cent of the world’s phosphate reserves are in North Africa, mostly Morocco. China, Russia, South Africa and the US also have limited quantities of the mineral rock. A lot of countries are set to run out of their domestic supply in the next generation. Any problems with supply lead to huge price shocks. Even without hitting its peak supply, a shortage could significantly affect the world’s food prices. Martin Blackwell of Rothamsted Research states: “Phosphate supply is potentially a very big problem. The population is growing and we are going to need more food.” Increasing demand, or political crises can also cause prices to fluctuate radically. What the world hasn’t woken up to yet is that Norway has an abundant supply, according to our investigations so far – and these scenarios can be averted.

Current crisis

As the merits of globalisation are called into question as the Coronavirus pandemic continues, securing closer-to-home supplies of critical raw materials are becoming more pressing. Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development at Oxford University, and author of ‘The Butterfly Defect. How Globalization Creates Systemic Risks, And What To Do About It’, says that “risks have been allowed to fester, they are the underbelly of globalization”. That, he says, can be seen not only in this crisis, but also in the credit crunch and banking crisis of 2008, and the vulnerability of the internet to cyber-attacks. The new global economic system brings huge benefits, but also huge risks.

European phosphate producer

So, what does this latest crisis mean for Norge Mining? Professor Richard Portes, Professor of Economics at the London Business School explains: “Once supply chains were disrupted [by coronavirus], people started looking for alternative suppliers at home, even if they were more expensive. If people find domestic suppliers, they will stick with them… because of those perceived risks.” Phosphorus is on the European Union Critical Raw Material list, because it’s an essential resource with significant risk to supply. At present, the EU is unable to source the valuable mineral from politically stable and reliable places. Our newly discovered reserves of phosphates in Norway are therefore of huge strategic value to Europe. We are confident that we will provide a much-needed supply of phosphates in the future, not only to Europe but also to the world – and for decades to come.

European revolution

The grades of phosphorus that we’ve put through stringent laboratory testing are astonishingly high; our deposits are also larger than we predicted or imagined.  The Geological Survey of Norway (NGU) estimates the in-situ value of our deposit to be worth more than $300 billion. There’s no longer any doubt that Norge Mining can become a large and important producer of phosphates In Norway – for Europe and the wider world. It’s true, that the world’s new ‘white gold’ is a mineral, not a metal – and we are excited to be leading Europe’s revolution.

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