17 July 2019

Research pick: Is Peak P a problem? - "Is phosphorus really a scarce resource?"

Chemists and materials scientists have been worried about the elements for many years. Some precious metals are, by virtue of their very nature, hard to come by. They are found in remote reserves and often in places with interesting politics that might preclude access to those resources for some companies. Other non-metal elements, such as helium are also dwindling. Ultimately, we may run out of some elements on which we rely for modern electronics and computing systems and the cooling for the superconducting magnets in magnetic resonance imaging MRI) machines, in the case of helium. Another element around which the alarm bells are ringing is the critically important phosphorus which is essential for agriculture.

Writing in the International Journal of Environmental Technology and Management, a team from Germany asks the important question: Is phosphorus really a scarce resource?

They explain that this is a QTWAIN – a question to which the answer is no – phosphorus abundant. However, the extraction of more than 90 percent of the supply is not feasible with current technology and economic and political limitations. In 2007/2008 there was a price spike in this commodity that triggered a debate around the notion of “peak P” just as we have had with “peak oil”. The team argues that the peak P crisis was one of economics and politics rather than an actual scarcity of the element, or more specifically, the mineral from which it might be extracted to be used in agricultural fertilizer manufacture.

The team adds that better recycling and management practices are already in hand to sustain phosphorus so that for the foreseeable future there is no need to consider peak P or any other claims as a crisis. Indeed, recycling phosphorus could actually become more economically viable than acquiring and processing virgin resources.

Köhn, J., Zimmer, D. and Leinweber, P. (2018) ‘Is phosphorus really a scarce resource?‘, Int. J. Environmental Technology and Management, Vol. 21, Nos. 5/6, pp.373-395.

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