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Norway has discovered a huge deposit of critical raw materials. This could make the EU less dependent on China and Russia and boost the bloc's energy transition. DW's Mikhail Bushuev has this exclusive report.
Michael Wurmser was a banker, investor and strategic consultant before he met new business partners from Norway. They offered the Swiss national five licenses for a lucrative phosphate deposit in Norway which had previously caught the attention of local scientists.
What sounded rather unspectacular at first has turned into one of Europe's most fascinating discoveries. Norway does not belong to the EU. Its huge deposit has certainly piqued the interest of the 27-member bloc and China. Wurmser's company claims to have discovered the biggest deposit of its kind globally, which could produce 70 billion to 80 billion tons of ore-containing material.
After backing from Swiss and German investors, Wurmser and his partners founded Norge Mining in the UK in 2018. They started taking soil samples in the Dalane region in sparsely populated southwestern Norway.
Besides phosphates, two other important minerals were found: vanadium and titanium. Vanadium is tipped to become the most important raw material of the future. About a tenth of all globally mined vanadium is currently used to produce high-performance batteries that store renewable energy.
Vanadium batteries are far superior to conventional lithium-ion batteries. They can be charged faster and survive 10 times more recharging/discharging cycles without losing performance. Besides that, recycling them is easier. Titanium is important for the steel industry, while phosphates are required for the production of fertilizers.
Electromagnetic field tests, carried out from a helicopter in 2019, produced a 3D visualization of the whole ore deposit. At first, Norge Mining only expected the raw materials to reach a depth of 300-400 meters (984-1,312 feet). Further test drilling and lab studies helped them calculate that the mineralization of the ore deposit reaches at least 2,200 meters (7,217 feet) deep. The company now believes the depth could be up to 4,500 meters.
"At first, we didn't expect the deposit to have such gigantic dimensions," Wurmser told DW. Norge Mining says it has since secured six licenses for the development of an area four times the size of Paris, some 420 square kilometers (261 square miles). In 2012, the Geological Survey of Norway put the value of the deposit at some €30 billion ($36.4 billion). But that estimate assumed the ore deposit would have a depth of just 100 meters.
British consulting firm SRK calculated that the total ore body contains 70-80 billion tons of phosphate-containing material, which would make it the world's largest phosphate deposit, ahead of Morocco's 50 billion and China's 30 billion tons. Added to this is some 3.5 billion tons of ore-containing rock material, which contains 2.45 million tons of vanadium. Norge Mining didn't provide any details on the titanium deposit.
The Norwegian mega deposit has spurred the European Union's interest, all the more since phosphate, vanadium and titanium are on the European Commission's list of critical raw materials. The list contains 30 rare earths and other minerals which are classified as crucial for the bloc's economic and climate protection policies but predominantly need to be imported. Often, importing these materials is risky or complicated. China, for instance, has reserved the right in its latest five-year plan to curtail exports of rare raw materials should they be needed for domestic production.
Michael Wurmser is confident that the Norwegian deposit can help the EU become less dependent on China
Over 60% of the EU's phosphate, vanadium and titanium supplies come from China, along with 20% from Russia and the rest from Kazakhstan, Morocco and other African nations. By 2030, demand is likely to soar — up to 58% for vanadium alone, according to Berlin-based consortium EIT RawMaterials.
Seeking to reduce the risk of supply bottlenecks, Brussels has created the European Raw Materials Alliance (ERMA). The initiative is backed by 160 companies, including Norge Mining, to make raw-material supply chains resilient.
But the company hasn't specified just how much vanadium, titanium and phosphates it aims to supply to the bloc, arguing it's too early to say. After all, it will take about five years to begin extraction. The EU doesn't see an immediate bottleneck in the supply of critical raw minerals, but the Economic Council of Germany's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party has called for the creation of reserves just in case.
The European Commission is in talks with Norwegian authorities about potential supplies. Oslo, with its dwindling oil reserves, is already readying itself for the post-fossil fuel era. Extracting and exporting rare earth minerals could become a new pillar of economic growth.
Odd Stangeland, the mayor of Eigersund where the huge deposit is located, told DW the locals are happy about the discovery, especially as Norge has pledged to adhere to strict environmental protection standards. Such is the backing for rare earth minerals, a highway may be rerouted so as not to be in the way of future mines, despite costing €330 million. Wurmser thinks that is a relatively small sum, given the expected yields. He says the Dalane deposit could be a multigenerational project, lasting for more than a century.
Norge Mining's drilling activities have already started, with actual extraction to kick off in a couple of years
Wurmser noted how rare earth minerals have become a political hot potato. As well as the EU, China's state-run enterprises are taking a keen interest in its Norwegian project. "Every 10 days, there's a call from China," Wurmser told DW, sensing an unspoken wish to buy his firm, which he insisted is out of the question. "We only see them as potential recipients [of our minerals]."
In contrast, Norge sees the EU as a key partner, as it will help the bloc realize its ambition of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. This goal cannot be achieved without green technologies and long-lasting batteries, produced with the help of rare raw minerals that are mined responsibly, he told DW.
Adapted from German