News: The Importance of Phosphorus

Paul Kilpatrick  
VANCOUVER – Sustainability Television Update
April 2011
Dr. Don Mavinic recently spoke at a Sustainability Community Breakfast in downtown Vancouver, part of the Metro Vancouver’s Sustainable Region Initiative, about a looming critical global natural resource shortage that most people know nothing about.  That resource is phosphorus. Dr. Mavinic (Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of British Columbia) discussed the problem as well as innovative technology for at least partially addressing the crisis.
Why is phosphorus important?
Phosphorus is a critical element in the world’s food supply and to human health.  It is an essential element of life and, as it turns out, there is a finite global supply of it.  Phosphorus is an essential mineral for biological processes and structures that support life in plants and animals (in all living cells, proteins, nucleic acids, enzymes, energy carriers, healthy bone and teeth development, and more).  Plants don’t grow without it.  In the human body phosphorus is the most abundant mineral (1%)[1] after calcium (1.5%),.  Over 80% of phosphorous in the human body is located in bones as calcium phosphate. 
How are we depleting phosphorus?
While phosphorus is a critical nutrient for life, it is also a problem in wastewater treatment plants and an environmental threat when excess phosphorus enters natural water systems.  Loss of phosphorus resulting from human activity occurs through fertilizer runoff from agricultural practices, golf courses, lawns, factories, gardens, as well as treated and untreated sewage discharge.  In addition to the loss of this valuable nutrient, excess runoff can result in the eutrophication[2] of water bodies and algae buildup, where nitrogen and phosphorus from the runoff and discharge boosts development of organic matter leading to the degradation of aquatic environments over time.
Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba is a prime example of a water body negatively impacted by fertilizer runoff[3].  The lake is part of Canada’s second largest watershed and a catchment area for a vast amount of land.  As a result, Lake Winnipeg is a focal point for accumulating runoff from agricultural activities.  While eutrophication has initially resulted in a spike in plant and fish life, the long-term effects are starting to lead to more frequent algae blooms and anaerobic dead zones.
Along with increasing agricultural demand for phosphorus in fertilizer to feed the world, for which there is no substitute, there is also a growing demand for phosphorus in modern technology such as electronic devices.  According to Dr. Mavinic, hybrid car batteries contain significant amounts of phosphorus, for example, as do cell phones.  Phosphorus has many additional uses and can be found in such things as steel, fireworks, matches, flares, military weapons, soda beverages, toothpastes, glass, copper smelting, and more.
Current rates of global consumption of phosphorus have raised concerns in the scientific community that there are perhaps 50 to 100 years of supply left at most[4], with global shortages likely as soon as 2035.
Where is phosphorus mined?
Phosphorus is a highly reactive element with oxygen and is therefore found in combination with other minerals, in forms such as Apatite, rather than in free form.  As with most resources, phosphorus is not evenly distributed around the world.  Approximately 90%[5] of the world’s phosphorus supply is located in only five countries; Morocco (40%), China (27%), South Africa, the United States and Jordan.  The state of Florida is the main source of phosphorus in theUnited States, but it is expected to be depleted within 20 years.
Opportunities to recapture phosphorus
Along with the expertise and foresight to see the tremendous urgency of the impending phosphorus crisis, Dr. Mavinic also recognized an important opportunity for developing technology to recapture phosphorus and to rethink the concept of waste.  Human urine, for example, contains approximately 3-4 grams of phosphorus, which can be captured and turned into fertilizer rather than treated as a contaminant.  To that end, Dr. Mavinic and his civil engineering students at U.B.C. designed a technology to capture phosphorus and ammonia from wastewater. 
In addition to his U.B.C. position Dr. Mavinic is Chair of the Technical Advisory Board for Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies, a company founded in 2005 that further developed the U.B.C. invention into a widely adoptable commercial scale technology for capturing phosphorus from waste streams.   
Wastewater treatment plants typically have challenges in dealing with the buildup of magnesium, phosphorus and nitrogen, which form struvite scale and clog infrastructure (pipes, pumps, etc.) resulting in expensive and time-consuming maintenance and repair work.  According to the company website, Ostara has developed a process that substantially reduces struvite scale and treats wastewater to recover nutrients and convert them into “a high-quality environmentally friendly, slow-release, commercial fertilizer that provides revenue for the system’s operator.”  The recovered nutrients are mixed with magnesium and caustic and harvested to produce granular fertilizer pellets branded as Crystal Green®[6] Fertilizer.  The process recaptures approximately 85% or more of the phosphorus that would otherwise have been lost.
Ostara nutrient recovery technology is already being used on a commercial scale in Canada and the United States.  Initial large scale testing of the technology began in 2007 at the Edmonton Gold Bar Wastewater Treatment Plant[7], followed in 2009 by Ostara’s first commercial nutrient recovery facility at the Durham Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility[8] near Portland (OR), which now produces 500 tons of Crystal Green Fertilizer annually for use by local farmers.  The Nansemond Wastewater Treatment Plant in Suffolk (VA) opened in 2010 and the York[9]Treatment Plant in York (PA) will soon be launched as well.  Both treatment plants incorporate Ostara technology.
Rethinking waste
The economic and environmental benefits of recapturing phosphorus from waste streams are evident.  It is also clear that we need to change how we think about bio-waste from humans and livestock, and perhaps use of the term ”waste” itself needs to be reconsidered. 
Inspiration for rethinking the concept of waste can be found in natural systems where nothing is wasted; where everything is a resource or food for something else.  Closed-loop systems thinking and life-cycle analysis are critical approaches humanity must embrace to protect the environment and address our long term needs on a planet of finite resources.  Finding ways to recapture and use phosphorus judiciously is a pressing example of just such a need.