P3-Post Peak Phosphorous


[Togo phosphates mining]

If you thought post-peak oil had generated media frenzy (and spawned endless sustainable design projects), there’s another, quieter crisis looming - post-peak phosphorous.

Phosphorus is at the heart of modern farming; an essential ingredient of agricultural fertilizers. It has no synthetic alternative and is being mined, used and wasted as never before. Inefficiencies in the processing of food and the soaring demand for meat and dairy produce across Asia is fueling demand for phosphorus faster than anyone had predicted.

[Global fertilizer use, 2007 via NYT]

[Global fertilizer use, 2007 via NYT]

Dana Cordell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology in Sydney, states: “Quite simply, without phosphorus we cannot produce food. At current rates, reserves will be depleted in the next 50 to 100 years. Phosphorus is as critical for all modern economies as water. If global water supply were as concentrated as global phosphorus supply, there would be much, much deeper concern. It is amazing that more attention is not being paid to ensuring phosphorus security.”

Not only does the fluctuating price of the raw material - phosphate rock - impact food prices, but some researchers believe that the risk of future phosphorus shortages dismantles the idea of bio-fuels as a “renewable” source of energy.

Significant Phosphate reserves exist in only a few nations: Morocco holds 32 per cent of the world's proven reserves, with Western Sahara, South Africa, Jordan, Syria and Russia holding the other significant reserves. A new geopolitical map may be drawn around the remaining reserves - creating a small number of new “resource superpowers” with a pricing control over fertilisers that some suspect could end up rivaling OPEC's control over crude oil.

[global phosphate reserves]

[global phosphate reserves]

The economic battle to secure phosphorus supplies may already have begun. China apparently has 13 billion tonnes of phosphate rock reserves and has started to guard them more carefully, alarming the fertiliser industry, as well as Western Europe and India, which are both entirely reliant on phosphorus imports. With America's own phosphorus production down 20 per cent over the past three years, it has begun to ship phosphorus in from Morocco.

Few researchers hold out hope of a discovery of phosphorus large enough to meet the continued growth in demand. The ore takes millions of years to form, extracting phosphorus from the sea bed presents massive technological and financial challenges. The solution, say scientists, lies in better use of existing phosphorus reserves.

Ironically, excess phosphorous leaching into water supplies causes plant and algae blooms, killing water oxygen supplies and creating ‘dead zones’ in coastal waters.  Scientist such as Cordell are looking into recycling the millions of tons of phosphorus that originate in fertilizer or sewage and move to the seas each year would address the twin problems of pollution and shortage.

[Extracting one ton of phosphate in Florida leaves five tons of the waste. About 1 billion tons of waste, stored in these slightly-radioactive heaps.]

[Extracting one ton of phosphate produces five tons of the waste. Florida, a major producer, has approx. 1 billion tons of slightly-radioactive heaps, which form a significant state landform.]

Many sewage treatment districts recycle sewage sludge to farm fields, while the Swedish have developed a toilet which captures phosphorous-rich urine, stores it for use farm fertilizer.

Would post-peak agriculture be replaced by fields of fertilizer-efficient greenhouses, producing new technological landscapes. In the meantime, perhaps we are all shareholders of the new yellow gold?

InfraNet Lab

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