Phosphorus – Apr 1

April 1, 2008

Click on the headline (link) for the full text.

Many more articles are available through the Energy Bulletin homepage

World’s phosphorus situation scares some scientists

Hallie Woods, Coloradoan
As production of biofuels increase to counter dependence on foreign oil and high fuel prices, some scientists worry that the world’s phosphorus supply will slowly diminish, limiting our ability to grow crops and forcing fertilizer prices through the roof.

Phosphorous is essential to plant growth. Mined out of phosphate rocks, it is one of the three critical elements found in fertilizer along with potassium and nitrogen.

“From our country’s deposits, we could run out in 50 to 100 years, which isn’t very long,” said Jessica Davis, professor of soil and crop sciences at Colorado State University. “I think that people aren’t really aware of it.”

… Phosphorous is mined throughout the world including in the United States in Florida, North Carolina, Idaho, Montana and Utah, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

In 2007, the United States produced 29 million tons of phosphates, down from 30 million tons in 2006 and 36 million tons in 2005, according to the USGS.

While phosphorus goes through a natural cycle back into the earth through plants and cattle excretions, phosphorus is declining in the United States. The country will then have to obtain its supply from North Africa, according to the USGS.
(31 March 2008)
First recent article I’ve seen in the press about the issue of phosophorus depletion. For more on the subject see our series at Energy Bulletin:
Background reading
Peak Phosphorus (complete paper)
Also see a review by Mobjectivist.

Aldous Huxley on phosphorus depletion and endless growth

Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point (novel published in 1928)
[page 56-7]

… 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 [1932] (Chapters 5 and 12)

Chapter 5:

… 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.”

Chapter 12:

… “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.

Tags: Culture & Behavior, Food, Overshoot, Resource Depletion