The magnesium moves the world: it is essential for living beings, for cell division and photosynthesis, and it is equally essential for the steel industry and for a multitude of technological applications. Therefore, it is fundamental for the agricultural and industrial sectors. But now it’s in short supply dangerously.
China, one of the big producers, is turning off the tap. And European industry has sounded the alarm, forcefully and without palliative: a few days ago, large industrial employers in the EU publicly warned “about the catastrophic impact” of this magnesium shortage, a chemical element that Spain treasures and that it produces in the form of magnesium oxide. It is one of the few countries in the
world with exploitable reserves of magnesite, mineral from which the precious magnesium oxide is extracted.
The production chain affected by the magnesium shortage is enormous. This is demonstrated by the fact that this warning from European industry was issued by 12 large employers. Among them, those that represent the automotive sector and its components, that of steel and that of aluminum.
The growing shortage of magnesium raises fears of a shortage that could cripple essential industries. Meanwhile, the shortage is driving the price up.
The effects extend to productions of the most varied, from steel to computers, through fertilizers, electronics, mobile phones, pharmaceutical products or environmental conservation applications. And is that magnesium, in addition to being inert, non-polluting, acts as a purifier of wastewater and gases. For example, it is capable of retaining sulfur dioxide in gaseous emissions and is an effective waterproofing for mud retention pools or heavy metal contaminated land.
“Magnesium is a chemical element that, as such, has no substitute”, highlights Jorge Baños, Deputy General Manager of Magnesitas Navarras (Magna). This company operates two of the three magnesite mines in Spain, the one located in the Navarrese council of Eugui and the one in Borobia (Soria). The third is in Lugo and belongs to Rubián Magnesites.
To these three deposits are added the processing plants, which produce magnesium oxide from magnesite. Magna’s is in Zubiri (Navarra), very close to its Eugui mine. And there is another processor in Calanda (Teruel), belonging to the Intrasa company.
In total, between mines and transformer plants, of the production of magnesium oxide depends on some 320 direct jobs in Spain.
Our country concentrates just under 3% of world magnesium production. It may seem little, but it is a strategic reserve of enormous value, according to the reduced list of countries with relevant productions. In Europe, with just 6% of world reserves, there are only four: Austria, Spain, Greece and Slovakia, in this order. Worldwide, three countries account for 66% of total reserves: China, North Korea and Russia.
Some 13 million tons of magnesium oxide are produced annually worldwide. Of the order of 5 million are destined to animal feed and fertilizer applications. And practically the remaining 8 million are monopolized by the manufacture of refractory products, which are essential for steel mills around the world. As the melting point of magnesium is higher than that of steel, it is essential to coat the furnaces in which it is produced.
Of those 13 million tons of magnesium oxide that are produced annually in the world, 350,000 are provided by Spain: about 250,000 tons Magna and the rest Magnesitas de Rubián. Of those 350,000 total tons, 200,000 are used for refractory products and about 100,000 for animal and plant nutrition.
High strategic value
The magnesite that Spain extracts and processes has a high strategic value for the national economy. Even more so when there is a global shortage in the markets. These mines are a piece of security for the national productive fabric that needs magnesium. And, in addition, it is a source of exports.
Once the national supply is secured, most of the Spanish production ends up abroad. Magna attests to this: 20% of the magnesium oxide it produces stays in Spain, another 45% is sold to European countries, and 35% to the rest of the world.
The Chinese strategy
Why is magnesium in short supply right now? Fundamentally, because «China is restricting its export a lot with a double intention: to better control the price at the world level, and to protect its sources of raw materials for future generations, for which they are also doing with deposits of raw materials in other regions of the world. world like Africa ”, explains Jorge Baños.
Magnesium, therefore, has been strengthened as a geostrategic resource. In this context, Spanish Association of Magnesia Manufacturers (Mages) insists that the Administration must recognize the importance of this mineral and act accordingly. Among other things, publicly highlighting the economic and environmental advantages of this resource and, thus, highlighting these mining projects, which are often contested by social movements that oppose these exploitations.
A mine that runs out
The current moment is especially important for Spanish magnesium, due to the need to search for new exploitable reserves. Of the only three mines in Spain, Eugui’s will be depleted in eight years. And the only viable alternative to give continuity to these Navarrese deposits, which have been exploited for 75 years, is to open a new mine in the vicinity. Magna has tried to find other viable points of exploitation, but the only feasible one is the one that has been identified near the Zubiri plant. The enclave that has been located is within an area protected by the EU’s Natura 2000 Network, which does not impede economic activity, but requires that it be compatible with the environment.
“We will be able to respect the values of the Natura 2000 Network, as shown in a study that we have promoted and in which about twenty specialists have participated over two years,” says Magna’s deputy general manager. He underlines that “our project is in line with the position recently expressed by the European Commission, which has emphasized that ‘the extractive industry, properly managed, far from being a threat is an opportunity for biodiversity'”. The future of the strategic Spanish magnesium depends to a great extent on this Navarrese project.