Beijing’s Grip on Minerals Might Be Shaken by


The green transformation can be a depressing business. We know we need it, we know how to do it, and life fueled by renewable energy could be extremely attractive. There’s just the issue of the metals needed in vast quantities to make the whole thing work. As virtually every digital-gadget user knows by now, China processes by far the largest share of those metals—which means it can cut other countries off from them.

Enter Norway, where a mining company says it has just discovered an extraordinarily large phosphate reserve that could meet the world’s needs for the next half-century. Let’s just hope it pans out.

China’s already started to flex its muscles over its control of critical materials. This month, Chinese authorities introduced export restrictions on two metals used in semiconductor manufacturing, gallium and germanium, allegedly to “safeguard national security” in response to the barrage of U.S. restrictions on the Chinese semiconductor sector. It was an ominous sign. China conducts more rare-earth mining than all other countries combined (63 percent), and it carries out 85 percent of the processing. Not only has it spent years building up its mining and processing; it has also been building remarkable strategic reserves of the metals, which are crucial to the manufacturing of digital life (no smartphones, digital cameras, hard drives, or monitors without rare earths), lighting, and the green economy (without rare earths, no transition to electric vehicles, also known as EVs, or wind power).

Though gallium and germanium aren’t rare-earth metals, they’re similarly critical to digital life, and the export curbs were clearly meant as a warning to other countries that if they annoyed Beijing, they could be cut off from the technologies of the future.

But what are countries to do now that they’ve painstakingly built digital lives and embarked on their green transformations in the belief that globalization would, as it has for decades, efficiently provide the components needed? Though the United States is trying to expand its rare-earth mining and processing (perhaps unsurprisingly, China is thought to have been part of a NIMBY campaign against a rare-earth processing plant in Texas), it’s slow going.

That’s because the known rare-earth deposits outside China are comparatively small. China’s reserves are twice as large as those of Vietnam, the world’s no. 2. Russia and Brazil, tied at no. 3, possess reserves just a bit smaller than those of Vietnam, but after that there’s a big gap. Knowing that China could cut us off at any moment makes the green transition dangerously vulnerable to the harsh winds of geopolitics.

The beginning of this year delivered further troubling news, when three Chinese firms signed a $1 billion deal with Bolivia’s state-owned YLB to explore Bolivia’s lithium reserves, the world’s largest. (Lithium is indispensable in modern batteries, including those for smartphones and EVs.) Last month, YLB signed further lithium agreements, worth $1.4 billion, this time with a Chinese firm and a division of Russia’s Rosatom, for lithium exploration and extraction. The deals follow a 2019 agreement for $2.3 billion between Bolivia and China’s Xinjiang TBEA Group.

Leave it to Norway, which has achieved extraordinary wealth thanks to the discovery of enormous oil deposits under its North Sea waters in the late 1960s, to deliver rare good news for mineral resources. Last month, Norge Mining—a British-Norwegian company—announced that it had finished its exploration of phosphate, another crucial component in devices including batteries and solar panels. And, ta-da!, Norge Mining had found that the Norwegian mineralized, igneous phosphate rock contains enough phosphate to keep the world going for another 50 years. The numbers involved are enormous. The Norwegian deposit contains an estimated 70 billion tons of phosphate, nearly as much as the world’s heretofore documented reserves of 71 billion tons. Morocco has the next-biggest reserves, at 50 billion tonnes

Phosphate’s main use isn’t as glamorous as rare earth’s role in the digital world, but it’s equally critical. It’s mostly used as a key part of modern food chains by way of fertilizer—but while used in smaller quantities in digital devices and EV batteries, phosphate is a crucial component there, too.

Until the Norwegian discovery, the available phosphate reserves were dwindling. The discovery will change that, and in the nick of time. “We believe the phosphorous that we can produce will be important to the West—it provides autonomy,” Norge Mining co-founder and deputy CEO Michael Wurmser told the news website Euractiv. Now the West needs the Norwegian public to do its part, because like rare-earth mining and processing, phosphate mining is dirty, and it also emits considerable amounts of CO2. Wurmser told news media that Norge Mining will be using modern carbon-capture technology—but Norwegians (and the Norwegian government) still need to go along with the mining plans.

“Continental Europe is rich in many strategically important raw materials, and the large raw material deposit in Norway is a stroke of luck for Europe,” Matthias Wachter, head of the Department for International Cooperation, Security Policy, Raw Materials, and Space at the Federation of German Industries, told me. “It has the potential to significantly reduce Europe’s import dependence on autocratic regimes, especially China. However, it will be many years before extraction can actually begin.” And a geologist at Oslo University’s Natural History Museum similarly downplayed expectations on the find. Experts have known about the reserves for some time, Professor Axel Müller told Courthouse News Service, adding that the problem is the extraction – the part Norge Mining wants to pursue. “We are talking in the far future, and the processing technique is complicated and energy intense,’ he said. ‘You have to separate minerals from each other by crushing the rock. Then you have to apply different processing technologies such as magnetics, flotation, and possible acid treatment to get a phosphate concentrate out.”

A lot is riding on Norge Mining, a company founded by Wurmser less than five years ago. According to Wurmser’s LinkedIn profile, this is his first position in the mining sector, other than a position in another mining company led by Wurmser, which has a minimal footprint but which, when I reached out to Norge Mining, they told me “advised globally on mining projects and commodity resources.” Norge Mining’s website lists as its staff only Wurmser, a CEO, a CFO, an advisor (who also runs a small consultancy), and an executive assistant. The European Raw Materials Alliance has said that it would support Norge Mining’s undertaking, but the organization is a public-private industry alliance, not a financial outfit.

Norge Mining certainly has big ambitions. It’s is also exploring Norway’s reserves of vanadium and titanium—metals used in everything from aircraft and submarines to laptops. Today, China produces by far the most titanium in the world, followed by Mozambique, South Africa, Australia, and Senegal. The United States, in 10th, produces 200 tons per year, compared to China’s 3,400. In the production of vanadium, China’s dominance is even stronger. Last year, it produced some 70,000 tons, followed by Russia at 17,000, South Africa, and Brazil. (If the BRICS nations were to stage a vanadium boycott of the West, we’d be in trouble.)

Norge Mining might end up being the company that solves the world’s phosphate shortage and tackles China’s domination of vanadium and titanium. But Western economies would be wise to make a few more bets. There are deposits to be found of not just phosphate but vanadium, titanium, and all manner of rare-earth metals as well. The Canadian firm NPM is upgrading it rare-earth processing facility in Estonia (supported by funding from the Estonian government).

And, Wachter said, European governments should do more to help get the continent’s rare-earth metals and other critical resources out of the ground: “We need a regulatory framework that supports resource extraction, incentivizes private investment, and massively accelerates permitting.”

The biggest news might, in fact, come from Sweden, where the mining giant LKAB is already painstakingly drilling its way toward the enormous rare-earth and phosphorus Per Geijer deposit in the Kiruna mine in Sweden’s far north. It’s already clear that the Per Geijer deposit is Europe’s largest. Digital life and green transformation without dependence on China are within reach—especially if consumers and companies get serious about doing their part and begin recycling far more gadgets.

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