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Jake Horder

Roles in biology !Macronutrients like Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorus (P) are crucial to many major biological processes in plants and animals. !P is a key structural component of DNA, ATP and phospholipids and is a limit to growth. !The average human contains 0.65 kg P, mostly in bone and teeth. !Annual consumption of P varies between 0.6 kg P/person for a vegetarian diet, to 1.6 kg P/ person for diets containing meat and dairy. The majority of P consumed in food is excreted.

!The significant difference is that, while alternatives to fossil fuels are many and varied, there is currently no major alternative source of P that can meet the demand created by the utilisation of PR.


Identifying losses !20% of the P derived from PR reaches the food consumed by humans in a distribution chain described as exceptionally leaky. !Considerable losses occur from agricultural runoff (46%) and through animal waste (40%). !In many regions, P in sewage entering municipal waste water treatment facilities (15%) is often either discharged directly to waterways or disposed as sludge to landfills. Exploiting urbanisation !More people now live in cities than in rural regions and this trend will continue along side the total population increase this century. !Cities necessitate the concentration of resources and are one of the easiest sources of P to tap. !By appropriate treatment of human exctreta in municipal wastewater, valuable nutrients can be recovered and returned to the farm.

Natural nutrient cycles !Historically, most N and P inputs were derived from the local environment in the form of organic waste. !While this complemented natural ecosystems it limited the development of urban centres. Industrialisation of production !The synthetic production of bio-available N and P from inorganic sources boosted crop production in the early 20th Century and initiated the Green Revolution. !The industrialisation of agriculture had immediate benefits but today it is clear that there are many unsustainable elements to this method of large-scale primary production. Sourcing Phosphorus !Synthetic fertilizers account for up to 90% of global phosphate rock (PR) demand. Current PR extraction is around 17.5 million tons/yr. !PR deposits are the result of millions of years of igneous and fossil sedimentary accumulation on the ocean floor and are not renewable on the human time scale.

Technically, peak-phosphate rock !Like any finite, geopolitically important commodity, there is some disagreement around the size of reserves and the point at which demand will exceed supply. !Most studies cite USGS annual figures, which are based on a combination of government estimates, scientific and industry assessment reports. !Cordell and White (2011) used the Hubbert curve to estimate peak production of PR by 2033 (fig.2). This study assumed increasing demand and a gradual decline in quality and accessibility of remaining reserves.


Available technologies !The range of commercial technologies available today include precipitation, adsorption, ion exchange and biological uptake methods. !Australian scientists have around 25 years research and development experience in this area. Biosolids !The Australian and New Zealand Biosolids Partnership is an industry group that supports research and development into sewerage sludge technologies. !Since 1989, Sydney Water has used biological digestion methods to recover and convert organic matter and macronutrients from municipal wastewater into biosolids. !Sydney Water currently recycles 100% of recoverable biosolids which supplies a supplimentary source of fertilizer and soil conditioner to around 20 broad-acre farms in Central and Western NSW. !Field studies in Australia and abroad indicate biosolids contain P-levels comparable to commercial diammonium phosphate and superphosphate fertilizers as well as beneficial slow-release characteristics. Opportunities for innovation !Efficiency of extraction process, particularly with respect to inorganic contaminants like heavy metals. !Anaerobic sludge digestion via precipitation can be seeded by various industry by-products and coupled with energy production. !If Australian firms continue efforts to maximise the efficiency of the process we can leverage that comparative advantage and export the technology to developing regions in the coming decades.

Figure 2. Peak phosphate curve [MT PR] (Source: Cordell & White, 2011)

Production of PR !The mining and processing of PR into phosphoric acid involves substantial energy input and generates a large volume of waste by-products. !Every 1 ton (T) of phosphoric acid requires 3 T of PR, 1.4 T of sulfuric acid, 11 m3 of water and produces 5.4 T of phosphogypsum and other toxic and/or radioactive wastes. !Mining low quality PR reserves will increase the volume of non-market by-products produced. Eutrophication !The acceleration of the P cycle has resulted in a four-fold increase in P flux into oceans since the Industrial Revolution. Likewise, the P concentration in freshwater systems has increased by roughly 75%. !Mobilisation of P into waterways leads to eutrophication at river mouths. Over 400 known coastal dead zones exist globally and this number will increase by around 1% per year. !Technologies developed in recent decades to remove and recover P were initially motivated by the need to reduce eutrophication, but now provide a way to close the P loop in agriculture.

Same, but different !Sourcing P for use in agricultural fertilizers from finite reserves of PR presents many complex issues similar to the reliance of energy production upon fossil fuels. !Both PR and oil are essential to the global economy. Both are unevenly distributed geographically (five countries control 90% of global PR reserves, Morocco alone has around 80%). Both have associated deleterious environmental impacts, and both are subject to commodity price fluctuations (fig.1).

Figure 1. Phosphate rock [$/MT] (Source: World Bank)