The Disappearing Nutrient
PHOSPHATE-BASED FERTILIZERS HAVE HELPED SPUR AGRICULTURAL GAINS IN THE PAST CENTURY, BUT THE WORLD MAY SOON RUN OUT OF THEM. NATASHA GILBERT INVESTIGATES THE POTENTIAL PHOSPHATE CRISIS.
Ten years ago, Don Mavinic was working on a way to get rid of a pesky precipitate that plugs up the works of waste-water treatment plants. Known as struvite, the solid crud forms in pipes and pumps when bacteria are used to clean up sewerage sludge.
Mavinic, a civil engineer at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, realized that struvite was more than just rubbish. A combination of phosphate, magnesium and ammonium, struvite contains many of the essential nutrients that plants need. Mavinic has developed a way to remove the precipitate during the water-treatment process and he is now selling it as a ‘green’ fertilizer. His technology was first used commercially in 2007 in a treatment plant in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. It has since been exported to a plant in Portland, Oregon, which began using it this year. A sewage works in Derby, UK, successfully tested the technology in September.
Aside from finding a use for a troublesome by-product, the recycling of struvite could also help solve a much bigger problem: the dwindling supply of phosphate rock. All life forms require phosphorus in the form of phosphate, which has an essential role in RNA and DNA and in cellular metabolism. Every year, China, the United States, Morocco and other countries mine millions of tonnes of phosphate from the ground (pictured above), the bulk of which is turned into fertilizer for food crops. But such deposits are a finite resource and could disappear within the century.
Experts disagree on how much phosphate is left and how quickly it will be exhausted. But many argue that a shortage is coming and that it will leave the world’s future food supply hanging in the balance.
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