In light of reports earlier this year that the world faced ‘phosphogeddon’, news that Norge Mining has discovered huge deposits of phosphate rock, titanium and vanadium in southern Norway has been widely welcomed by the world’s media. The deposits, which have been found in the Bjerkreim-Sokndal Layered Intrusion Site, amount to around 70 billion tonnes of mineralised igneous phosphate rock and could satisfy global demand for more than 50 years.
As The Economist reports, “metallurgical rivalry in Europe’s far north is just as intense” as disputes once made famous in Norse legend and the find is a “big deal” that can certainly help “the West in its ever sharper rivalry with Russia and China”. As demand continues to outstrip supply and experts such as Professor Jenny Johns of the University of Bristol warn “There is no life on Earth without phosphorus” (as quoted by Euronews.green) the discovery has come at a pertinent time.
All that glisters…
Phosphorus was first discovered in 1669 by German scientist Hennig Brandt. Searching for the elusive Philosopher’s Stone, rumoured to promise immortality and to transform base metals into gold, it’s fair to say that Brandt had little idea how vital his experiment – involving sand, charcoal and the boiling of gallons of urine, which eventually formed “a white vapour [that] condensed into thick drops that gleamed brightly for hours” (Science History Institute) – would impact the world’s economy let alone its very existence.
Or is it?
In the almost 400 years since, phosphorus – from phosphate rock – has become a vital component for a number of industries, being used in electric car batteries, fertilisers, animal feed, computer chips and solar panels. According to euroactiv.com, it is particularly important to global food production and security, with “90% of the world’s mined phosphate rock used in agriculture”. Consequently, the European Union has designated it a strategic Critical Raw Material and supplies are highly prized with prices to match.
Given that the largest deposits of phosphorus discovered so far are in Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and China (according to figures produced in 2022 by Statista), it has proved particularly newsworthy that these newly discovered sources of phosphate rock are in northern Europe. Indeed, Euroactiv.com quoted Norge Mining’s founder, Michael Wurmser, on this: “When you find something of that magnitude in Europe, which is larger than all the other sources we know – it is significant…it provides autonomy.”
Naturally, concerns were expressed by some news providers as to the environmental impact of the mining of phosphate rock. The BBC informed its readers that while “electric cars and solar panels could be beneficial to the environment, refining phosphorus and extracting the material can be a heavily polluting process”. However, it also noted that Norge Mining planned to use carbon capture and storage to offset the environmental impact of production. According to Euronews.green, Norway’s minister of trade and industry, Jan Christian Vestre, underlined that Norway had an “obligation” to develop “the world’s most sustainable mineral industry”.
So remarkable was Brandt’s 1669 discovery it was immortalised in oil on canvas by artist Joseph Wright of Derby in his painting, The Alchemist Discovering Phosphorus (1771). This, like Norge Mining’s own discovery, was something of a “big deal”. Today, Brandt’s findings have been immortalised in the many, many industries that utilise phosphorus in their products. And, indeed, many will argue that Brandt – while searching for gold and immortality – did, after all, find the key to life on Earth. Norge Mining will use it to unlock the door to a greener future.