Phosphorus is one of the three elements critical for modern agriculture, and hence the survival of human beings.
In 2007, Energy Bulletin published the first report in which Hubbert analysis was applied to mined phosphorus supplies, highlighting the oncoming shortage. In recent months, articles on the subject have been published by Scientific American, Spiegel, Foreign Policy and Miller-McCune. Several institutes are beginning to look at the problem.
Click on the headline (link) for the full text.
Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage
Experts Warn of Impending Phosphorus Crisis
Hilmar Schmundt, Spiegel
The element phosphorus is essential to human life and the most important ingredient in fertilizer. But experts warn that the world’s reserves of phosphate rock are becoming depleted. Is recycling sewage the answer?
They sift the powder through their fingers, smell it and admire its soft, brownish shimmer. The members of the delegation from Japan, dressed in black suits and yellow helmets, stand attentively in a factory building in Leoben, Austria, marveling at a seemingly miraculous transformation, as stinking sewage sludge is turned into valuable ash.
Nothing suggests that the brown dust comes from a cesspool. It doesn’t smell, is hygienic and is as safe as sand in a children’s sandbox. It’s also valuable. The powder has a phosphate content of around 16 percent. Phosphate, the most important base material in mineral fertilizer, is currently trading at about €250 ($335) a ton.
Untreated sewage sludge was once dumped onto fields as liquid manure, until it became apparent how toxic it is. Human excretions are full of heavy metals, hormones, biphenyls — and drugs. New processing plants are designed to remove these toxins far more effectively than before, thereby paving the way for the use of sewage sludge in safe, human fertilizer. Ash Dec, the company that operates the pilot plant in Leoben, has dubbed the program “Ash to Cash.”
This unconventional approach could be important for all of mankind. While the term “peak oil” — the point at which production capacity will peak before oil wells gradually begin to run dry — is well known, fewer people know that phosphate reserves could also be running out. Experts refer to this scenario as “peak phosphorus.”
“While the exact timing may be disputed, it is clear that already the quality of remaining phosphate rock reserves is decreasing and cheap fertilizers will be a thing of the past,” warns Dana Cordell of the Institute for Sustainable Futures in Sydney. A phosphate crisis would be at least as serious as an oil crisis. While oil can be replaced as a source of energy — by nuclear, wind or solar energy –, there is no alternative to phosphorus. It is a basic element of all life, and without it human beings, animals and plants could not survive.
(21 April 2010)
James Elser and Stuart White, Foreign Policy
It’s an essential, if underappreciated component of our daily lives, and a key link in the global food chain. And it’s running out.
From Kansas to China’s Sichuan province, farmers treat their fields with phosphorus-rich fertilizer to increase the yield of their crops. What happens next, however, receives relatively little attention. Large amounts of this resource are lost from farm fields, through soil erosion and runoff, and down swirling toilets, through our urine and feces. Although seemingly mundane, this process cannot continue indefinitely. Our dwindling supply of phosphorus, a primary component underlying the growth of global agricultural production, threatens to disrupt food security across the planet during the coming century. This is the gravest natural resource shortage you’ve never heard of.
The root of this problem has previously been the subject of presidential concern. In a message to Congress in 1938, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt warned that the phosphorus content of American agricultural land “has greatly diminished.” This shortage, Roosevelt warned, could cause low crop yields and poor-quality produce, detrimentally affecting “the physical health and economic security of the people of the nation.”
… The world’s reliance on phosphorus is an unappreciated aspect of the “Green Revolution,” a series of agricultural innovations that made it possible to feed the approximately 4.2 billion-person increase in the global population since 1950. This massive expansion of global agricultural production required a simultaneous increase in the supply of key resources, including water and nitrogen. Without an increase in phosphorus, however, crops would still have lacked the resources necessary to fuel a substantial increase in production, and the Green Revolution would not have gotten off the ground.
Roosevelt’s warning was prescient and stimulated agricultural engineers to find an effective, albeit temporary, solution. To satisfy the world’s growing food demand, they mobilized global mining efforts in ancient, phosphorus-rich marine deposits. By 2008, industrial farmers were applying an annual 17 million metric tons of mined phosphorus on their fields. Demand is expanding at around 3 percent a year — a rate that is likely to accelerate due to rising prosperity in the developing world (richer people consume more meat) and the burgeoning bioenergy sector, which also requires phosphorus to support crop-based biofuels.
Our supply of mined phosphorus is running out.
… Establishing a reliable phosphorus supply is essential for assuring long-term, sustainable food security. We need to dramatically reduce the demand for phosphate rock by eliminating our wasteful practices. This will require a combination of low-tech and high-tech solutions, including efforts to prevent soil erosion, development of more-targeted methods of fertilizer application, and the creation of new, phosphorus-efficient crops, which produce a larger yield per phosphorus unit applied. Fortunately, unlike fossil fuels, phosphorus can be used over and over…
James Elser is Regents’ professor of Ecology in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University and co-organizer of ASU’s Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative. Stuart White is director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, and co-organizer of the Global Phosphorus Research Initiative.
(20 April 2010)
Phosphorus Famine: The Threat to Our Food Supply
David A. Vaccari, Scientific America
This underappreciated resource–a key component of fertilizers–is still decades from running out. But we must act now to conserve it, or future agriculture could collapse
* Mining phosphorus for fertilizer is consuming the mineral faster than geologic cycles can replenish it. The U.S. may runout of its accessible domestic sources in a few decades, and few other countries have substantial reserves, which could also be depleted in about a century.
* Excess phosphorus in waterways helps to feed algal blooms, which starve fish of oxygen, creating “dead zones.”
* Reducing soil erosion and recycling phosphorus from farm and human waste could help make food production sustainable and prevent algal blooms.
As complex as the chemistry of life may be, the conditions for the vigorous growth of plants often boil down to three numbers, say, 19-12-5. Those are the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, prominently displayed on every package of fertilizer. In the 20th century the three nutrients enabled agriculture to increase its productivity and the world’s population to grow more than sixfold. But what is their source? We obtain nitrogen from the air, but we must mine phosphorus and potassium. The world has enough potassium to last several centuries. But phosphorus is a different story. Readily available global supplies may start running out by the end of this century. By then our population may have reached a peak that some say is beyond what the planet can sustainably feed.
Moreover, trouble may surface much sooner. As last year’s oil price swings have shown, markets can tighten long before a given resource is anywhere near its end. And reserves of phosphorus are even less evenly distributed than oil’s, raising additional supply concerns. The U.S. is the world’s second-largest producer of phosphorus (after China), at 19 percent of the total, but 65 percent of that amount comes from a single source: pit mines near Tampa, Fla., which may not last more than a few decades. Meanwhile nearly 40 percent of global reserves are controlled by a single country, Morocco, sometimes referred to as the “Saudi Arabia of phosphorus.” Although Morocco is a stable, friendly nation, the imbalance makes phosphorus a geostrategic ticking time bomb.
Only the preview for this article is publicly available online. -BA
Patrick Déry and Bart Anderson, Energy Bulletin
Peak oil has made us aware that many of the resources on which civilization depends are limited.
M. King Hubbert, a geophysicist for Shell Oil, found that oil production over time followed a curve that was roughly bell-shaped. He correctly predicted that oil production in the lower 48 states would peak in 1970. Other analysts following Hubbert’s methods are predicting a peak in oil production early this century.
The depletion analysis pioneered by Hubbert can be applied to other non-renewable resources. Analysts have looked at peak production for resouces such as natural gas, coal and uranium.
In this paper, Patrick Déry applies Hubbert’s methods to a very special non-renewable resource – phosphorus – a nutrient essential for agriculture.
In the literature, estimates before we “run out” of phosphorus range from 50 to 130 years. This date is conveniently far enough in the future so that immediate action does not seem necessary. However, as we know from peak oil analysis, trouble begins not when we “run out” of a resource, but when production peaks. From that point onward, the resource becomes more difficult to extract and more expensive.
Physicist Déry applied the technique of Hubbert Linearization to data available from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to phosphorus production in the following:
- The small Pacific island nation of Nauru, a former phosphate exporter.
- The United States, a major phosphate producer.
- The world.
He tested Hubbert Linearization first on data from Nauru to see whether he could have predicted the year of its peak phosphate production in 1973. Satisfied with the results, he applied the method to United States and the world. He estimates that U.S. peak phosphorus occurred in 1988 and for the world in 1989.
Phosphorus – its role and nature
Phosphorus (chemical symbol P) is an element necessary for life. Because phosphorus is highly reactive, it does not naturally occur as a free element, but is instead bound up in phosphates. Phosphates typically occur in inorganic rocks.
As farmers and gardeners know, phosphorus is one of the three major nutrients required for plant growth: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). Fertilizers are labelled for the amount of N-P-K they contain (for example 10-10-10).
Most phosphorus is obtained from mining phosphate rock. Crude phosphate is now used in organic farming, whereas chemically treated forms such as superphosphate, triple superphosphate, or ammonium phosphates are used in non-organic farming.
(13 August 2007)
As far as I know, Patrick was the first to publish a paper on appling Hubbert’s methods to phosophorus. He was one of the first in recent years to call attention to the phosophorus problem, although ecologists have known about the issue for years. Aldous Huxley, for example, mentioned it in two of his novels.
Aldous Huxley on phosphorus depletion and endless growth
Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point (novel published in 1928)
… Lord Edward started at the word. It touched a trigger, it released a flood of energy. “Progress!” he echoed and the tone of misery and embarrassment was exchanged for one of confidence. “Progress! You politicians are always talking about it. As though it were going to last. Indefinitely. More motors, more babies, more food, more advertizing, more money, more everything, forever. You ought to take a few lessons in my subject. Physical biology. Progress indeed! What do you propose to do about phosphorus, for example?” His question was a personal accusation.
“But all this is entirely beside the point,” said Webley impatiently.
“On the contrary,” retorted Lord Edward, “it’s the only point.” His voice had become loud and severe. He spoke with a much more than ordinary degree of coherence. Phosphorus made a new man of him; he felt very strongly about phosphorus and, feeling strongly, he was strong. The worried bear had become the worrier. “With your intensive agriculture,” he went on, “you’re simply draining the soil of phosphorus. More than half of one per cent a year. Going clean out of circulation. And then the way you throw away hundreds of thousands of tons of phosphorus pentoxide in your sewage! Pouring it into the sea. And you call that progress. Your modern sewage systems!” His tone was witheringly scornful. “You ought to be putting it back where it came from. On the land.” Lord Edward shook an admonitory finger and frowned. “On the land, I tell you.”
“But all this has nothing to do with me,” progrested Webley.
“Then it ought to,” Lord Edward answered sternly. “That’s the trouble with you politicians. You don’t even think of the important things. Talking about progress and votes and Bolshevism and every year allowing a million tons of phosphorus pentoxide to run away into the sea. It’s idiotic, it’s criminal. it’s … it’s fiddling while Rome is burning.” He saw Webley opening his mouth to speak and made haste to anticipate what he imagined was going to be his objection. “No doubt,” he said, “you think you can make good the loss with phosphate rocks. But what’ll you do when the deposits are exhausted?” He poked Everard in the shirt front. “What then? Only two hundred years and they’ll be finished. You think we’re being progressive because we’re living on our capital. Phosphates, coal, petroleum, nitre – squander them all. That’s your policy. And meanwhile you go round trying to make our flesh creep with talk about revolutions.”
English author Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World”) came from a family steeped in biology and incorporated biological themes in his work.
According to Wikipedia, The character Everard Webley is a charismatic fascist-like figure. Lord Edward Tantamount is an amateur biologist.
Noted by Robert Wilson at TOD.
Phosphorus in Brave New World
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
UPDATE (Apr 1): Dr. Larry Hughes adds:
Huxley also referred to the recovery of phosphorus from the dead in Brave New World  (Chapters 5 and 12)
… Following its southeasterly course across the dark plain their eyes were drawn to the majestic buildings of the Slough Crematorium. For the safety of night-flying planes, its four tall chimneys were flood-lighted and tipped with crimson danger signals. It was a landmark.
“Why do the smoke-stacks have those things like balconies around them?” enquired Lenina.
“Phosphorus recovery,” explained Henry telegraphically. “On their way up the chimney the gases go through four separate treatments. P2O5 used to go right out of circulation every time they cremated some one. Now they recover over ninety-eight per cent of it. More than a kilo and a half per adult corpse. Which makes the best part of four hundred tons of phosphorus every year from England alone.” Henry spoke with a happy pride, rejoicing whole-heartedly in the achievement, as though it had been his own. “Fine to think we can go on being socially useful even after we’re dead. Making plants grow.”
… “It really is a bit too thick,” the Head Mistress of Eton was saying to the Director of Crematoria and Phosphorus Reclamation. “When I think that I actually …”
… He had managed, with a heroic effort, to hold down the mounting pressure of his hilarity; but “sweet mother” (in the Savage’s tremulous tone of anguish) and the reference to Tybalt lying dead, but evidently uncremated and wasting his phosphorus on a dim monument, were too much for him.
Moving phosphorus from noxious to precious (report on peak phosphorus)
Andrea Ulrich, Diane Malley, Vivek Voora;
International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD),
Article links to 18-page report (PDF)
(4 March 2010)
Sustainable P Initiative
Arizona State University
Peak Phosphorus: the sequel to Peak Oil (paper)
Professor Stuart White and Dana Cordell, Sustainable Phosphorus Futures
The Story of P(ee)
Melinda Burns, Miller-McCune
(10 February 2010)
Peak phosphorus: Quoted reserves vs. production history
James Ward, The Oil Drum
(9 October 2008)