Running Out of P ? – World Nearing Peak Phosphorus

It seems we always take the most basic things for granted. With regards to adequate water, air, and soil (things we assume will always be there) we are gradually becoming more mindful of them, and their limits. But how many of us are worried about phosphorus (P) running out?

Well, lately, more and more agricultural scientists have been taking a closer accounting of the world’s supply of “vitamin” P. It seems that, at current rates of production (of mined P), and given anticipated agricultural demand over the next 30-40 years, the world will be facing a shortage of P; peak P will be reached by 2030.

Phosphorus is an essential mineral for all living things. It is the key component of the phosphodiester bonds that form the “backbone” of our DNA and the phospholipids comprising our cells’ membranes.  It is the main bio-active component of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), our cells’ energy storage molecule. It activates genes and proteins.  It is a major component of our bones.  Its an active ingredient in toothpastes and detergents. And, it is one of the three essential nutrients in NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) fertilizers that our robust agricultural industry relies on.

Peak phosphorus ‘Hubbert’ curve, indicating that production will eventually reach a maximum, after which it will decline (source: Cordell, Drangert and White, 2009)

Clearly, we need phosphorus. And so, any news that questions the adequacy of the world’s supply of phosphorus should not be taken lightly.

Fortunately, the concerned folks over at The Global Phosphorus Research Initiative (GPRI) are on the case. The initiative is a collaboration of European, Australian, and North American research institutes whose stated mission is ” is to facilitate quality interdisciplinary research on global phosphorus security for future food production.”

Additionally, GPRI seeks to “facilitates networking, dialogue and awareness raising among policy makers, industry, scientists and the community on the implications of global phosphorus scarcity and possible solutions. ”

Unfortunately, known phosphorus deposits, mining and production are not equally distributed around the planet. Just five nations control over 90% of the supply of high grade phosphorus, including China, the US and Morocco. Growing global demand keeps prices high and many farmers in developing regions simply cannot afford the cost of NPK fertilizers. But, there is a potential remedy.

One of the main components of the GPRI is phosphorus recovery, citing some 3 million tons of phosphorus excreted in human urine and feces globally each year. Unlike oil, phosphorus can be used over and over again if present in sufficient concentration. Recirculating P locally to agriculture will be key, the researchers state, to “decoupling” less industrialized communities from increasingly expensive global fertilizer markets.* This, in turn,  is key to achieving sustainable food production, and providing food security for the world’s hungry well into the future (see my previous post: U.S. Wastes More Food Energy Than Gained from Gulf Oil and Gas) .

waxy white (yellow cut), red, and violet phosphorus

Due to its high reactivity, P is never found in its ‘free’ element form in nature (although phosphorus ions are present in sea water and cytoplasm) and is always found in combination with other elements, such as oxygen and iron.  Its two most common rock forms are white and red phosphorus, but it also has  black and violet forms. Its molecular form, P2, is only stable at very high temperatures.

* Part of the high cost of NPK fertilizer for farmers in developing nations  is the result of transportation costs due to the remoteness of farms  (especially in sub-Saharan Africa) from sources of production, and lack of reliable roads.

Top Image: electron shell diagram – Phosphorus; Pumbaa80 (cc-by-sa 3.0)

Chart:  the GPRI website, original source cited in caption above.

Bottom Photo: Materialscientist (cc-by-sa 3.0)

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