Peak Phosphorus – Commence Urine Recyling on Space Station Earth

First there was “Peak Oil’, then there was talk of ‘Peak Water’, but ‘Peak Phosphorus’, may trump them all as a sustainability issue without rival.

Fact: Phosphorus is a non-renewable resource for which there is no substitute.

Phosphorus is the currency of energy in every living cell. Our ability to provide enough food to feed the human population is dependent on the use of artificial fertilizers, which contain phosphorus. While nitrogen is abundant in the atmosphere (- it just takes lots of energy to capture it!), phosphorus is mined at just a handful of locations worldwide.

You can substitute renewable energy for oil and gas. But no other mineral can take the place of phosphorus. There is no substitute for water either, but the water cycle constantly provides us with ‘new’ fresh water, granted not always where we want it, when we want it and in the quantities in which we would like, but there is a fundamental recycling system there. And if you have enough energy, two thirds of the planet is covered in it and you can take the salt out of it. There is no such ‘re-cycling system’ with phosphorus and the natural resources which are limited are being depleted. The timing for Peak phosphorus may be 50 years out, or a hundred and fifty years, but as with peak oil, it’s not a question of if, but when. There has already been considerable volatility in Phosphorus markets in the past year, possibly related more to volatility in the energy market and this has trickled through into food prices.

Currently we mine it, use it and disperse it widely across the planet, much of it ending up in our rivers, lakes and oceans. Large portions of the earth’s oceans are now ‘dead zones’ and this is largely due to nutrient enrichment. It’s the classic example of too much of a good thing. When you see green lakes and algal blooms, this is nutrient enrichment.

Phosphorus was discovered in the 17th century by Alchemist’s trying to find the ‘Philosophers Stone, applied under peoples finger nails as a form of medieval torture, used in matches and explosives, and Post World War II its use in both pesticides and fertilizers has been hugely important in increasing global agricultural output. For an interesting treatise on the topic check out The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus.

The Clean Tech Opportunity
So where is the Clean Tech angle on this? It’s in Phosphorus recycling and phosphorus recovery technologies. There are a number of companies focused on developing technologies to extract phosphorus and produce fertilizer products. Sweden and Germany are leading the way on promoting phosphorus recycling. Sweden for example has mandated that 60% of phosphorus must be recovered at its wastewater treatment plants by 2015 and the UK is also promoting phosphorus recycling. Every municipal wastewater treatment plant is potentially a ‘phosphorus mine’. Agricultural and industrial waste streams are also potential ‘mines’.

The mining may also start in your own home with source separation of urine and solids. The basic idea is simple: urine accounts for only 1% of the total volume of wastewater, but it contains up to 80% of all the nutrients. If it is processed separately, wastewater treatment plants can be reduced in size, water protection can be improved, and nutrients can be recycled. The Europeans are certainly leading the way in this area, in Switzerland trials with NoMix toilets have been quite successful. Apparently the majority of the Swiss people interviewed said they had no problem with it, even the men, who had to sit down to spend a penny! It may sound more like something more likely to be used on the NASA Space Station, but then again, we’re all on a Space Station, just a slightly bigger more populated one.
Paul O’Callaghan is the founding CEO of the Clean Tech development consultancy O2 Environmental. Paul lectures on Sustainable Energy at the BC Institute of Technology. He is a Director with Ionic Water Technologies and an industry expert reviewer for Sustainable Development Technology Canada.
3 replies
  1. jeff
    jeff says:

    This deserves serious consideration. There is an intersection of most problems at the energy/water/nutrient nexus. Whole systems optimization should certainly consider phosphorus, which is wasted to no end in the BAU.With industrial agriculture as we know it being totally dependent on this element, failure to pay attention to this problem early could lead to serious consequences with food prices and availability for future generations.

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