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“Urgent need for developing phosphorus processing capacity in Europe…”

10/07/2023

Dr. Jana Plananska is an expert and independent consultant in electric mobility and battery technology, with a PhD from the University of St. Gallen on clean transport transition, researching on consumer adoption of electric and autonomous vehicles. She’s also founded her own mobility solutions consulting company. Norge Mining is thrilled to be on the receiving side of her expertise and knowledge – as a member of its Board of Advisors. Here Dr. Plananska examines some less discussed issues concerning battery mineral demand – namely the phosphate battery supply chain in Europe.

I have been specialising in electric and smart mobility for quite some time. What’s fascinating about being on the Board of Advisors of Norge Mining is that I can take a step back to understand the complexity of global supply chains of critical raw materials necessary to enable Europe’s green and digital transition. In particular, I get to analyse three EU Critical Raw Materials in great depth – vanadium, phosphate, and phosphorus.

In this article, I’ll uncover some points that are a critical part of the battery mineral demand conversation, but that are often ignored. I’m going to start with phosphate and phosphorus – sometimes referred to as ‘white gold’. Demand is growing due to its increasing use in lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles, especially lithium iron phosphate batteries (LFPs), and fertilisers to assure food security for all.

Dr. Jana Plananska

Not all phosphate is created equal…

The impending green and digital transitions are massively increasing the demand and value of phosphate and phosphorus – needed for lithium-ion batteries, namely lithium iron phosphate battery chemistry (LFP), and as etching components for the manufacturing of electronics (such as semiconductors, electronic circuits, PV, and LED panels). However, currently, roughly 80% of extracted phosphate comes from sedimentary sources, that suffer from higher contamination levels. The quality of this is lower than the pure magmatic resources found beneath Norway’s surface. This means there is a lot of hard graft at the processing stage midstream; it needs to be treated with more laborious procedures to get to the purity that’s needed for high-end applications such as semiconductors and li-ion batteries. This incurs higher energy costs and greater manpower.

What’s more, there is currently no facility in Europe processing elemental phosphorus – a key precursor within the chemical industry for the high-end applications within the electronics and energy storage sector. Europe is fully dependent on the supplies of this strategic component, with 70% of phosphorus coming from Kazakhstan, 25% from Vietnam, and 4% from China. With this in mind, there is an urgent need to increase extraction of phosphate from igneous formations and develop phosphorus processing capacity in Europe.

Growing demand for phosphorus and phosphate – but will there be sufficient supply?

Phosphate rock mining and phosphorus processing needs to rapidly increase to fulfil the demands for fertilisers to assure food security for all and to manufacture clean technologies for the green and digital transition. It is expected that by 2050, phosphate rock mining will have to double to address the above needs. Current plans for new phosphate mining and phosphorus processing, however, hardly match these needs. Nedelciu et al. (2020) concludes that, in a business-as-usual scenario, the global demand for phosphorus for fertilisers will overtake their supply by 2040; with current population growth trends most likely even sooner.

This and many other studies arrive to the same conclusion: the looming mismatch between phosphate supply and demand, without even considering the massively increasing demand for phosphorus for the green and digital transition, namely for li-ion batteries and semiconductors. The demand for phosphorus within the above sectors is expected to reach 30% annual growth by 2030, increasing the aggregate global demand for phosphorus by 20% by 2025. The current demand for phosphorus and derivatives in Europe reaches approximately 100 000 tonnes; by 2030, this number can grow up to 230 000 tonnes. Considering the rapid need for electrification and decarbonization, the mismatch between global phosphate supply and demand will occur, most likely even sooner than by 2040.

Where will the additional supply of phosphate come from?

To date, phosphate supply chain is strongly concentrated, with almost 44% coming from China, 14% from Morocco, 9.5% from the USA and 6.9% from Russia. Further downstream, the dependency on handful of countries even increases, as illustrated on the full import dependence of the EU on phosphorus illustrated above. In general, more than 90% of critical raw material processing and clean technology manufacturing comes from China; 76% of battery cells and 92% of permanent magnets – the absolutely indispensable “chips” for the green and digital transition – as well. The issue is further aggravated by the fact that there are almost no new projects in the pipeline aiming to start phosphate mining and processing. This is mainly due to the high costs of project entry and the risks related to new project development, including their low profitability.

Norge Mining’s project in South-West of Norway, investigating phosphate mining and phosphorus processing in Europe, is therefore unique – bringing substantial value to the European market and economy. At approximately 70 billion tonnes, Norge Mining has exploration rights for one of the worlds’ largest igneous phosphate rock deposits. Unsurprisingly, IBU-tec advanced materials AG has seen the potential, and has signed a strategic cooperation letter of intent with Norge Mining – with both parties agreeing to IBU-tec having access to these vast deposits to produce battery materials. No doubt others will be interested in this huge potential – not least, because ESG standards are becoming increasingly important, with supply chain due diligence and other pieces of EU legislation aiming to assure high environmental and social standards.

In part II, I’ll be looking at vanadium, the state-of-the-art flow battery technology and another EU Critical Raw Material. Its highly concentrated supply chain – in terms of geography and production – leads to large price volatility and supply insecurity. New sources of vanadium – such as the ones represented by Norge Mining’s deposits – need to be developed to overcome the shortcomings of the existing vanadium supply chain.