February 24, 2011
Phosphorus is an element essential to biology. Although a miniscule amount does the trick, nothing grows without it, so it has no substitute. The global market price of phosphate rock spiked at $430 per metric ton three years ago, and is now about $200 on its way back up. About 90% of mined phosphorus is for fertilizer – food. All this can be “checked by Google,” and (http://phosphorusfutures.net) is a good starting point.
Phosphorus has been a minor player in commodity markets. Data are murky. The stuff is mined in quantity by few companies and only in a few places. Major deals have been cut. For example, China is estimated to have the largest deposits of working grade ore, closely followed by Morocco. But in 2008, China slapped a 135% export tariff on phosphorus ore; then agreed to buy ore from Morocco, apparently to retard depletion of their own reserves.
Morocco is another place where unrest could boil over at any time. Much of its phosphorus is in Western Sahara, which Morocco took over in 1975, driving thousands of native Saharawi people into the Algerian desert. Most are still there, in limbo. Saharawi have launched low-level attacks against Moroccans ever since.
Where mining revenue goes is unclear. King Mohammed IV has not been violently opposed. He’s introduced modest reforms and does not routinely murder dissidents, as did his father, but corruption is rampant in this two tier society. All money funnels appear to run through the Makzhen, the King’s palace elite. To protest, on February 20, thousands of people took to the streets of Rabat. Stay tuned. This story is coming up behind Libya, Egypt, and points east.
This has been building a long time. The UN condemned Morocco’s treatment of the Saharawi. Several European companies withdrew from Morocco to protest its illegal seizing of the mines, and its treatment of its citizens, miners in particular. Morocco welcomed the Chinese buy.
Were it not for this mess, peak phosphorus would be a routine investigation. Academic studies conservatively estimate reserves and peg the global peak between 2030 and 2040. A commercial study defers the peak by a few decades. They differ in assessment of ore concentrations and locations, and the energy necessary to mine it. In any case, phosphorus for industrial use is not in infinite supply, and it’s not likely to be a cheap commodity indefinitely. And we use too much. Excess phosphorus runs into streams and rivers and winds up creating those “dead zones” at the mouths of rivers, like the one in the Gulf of Mexico off the Mississippi delta.
However, low concentrations of phosphorus exist everywhere there is life. So what did gardeners use before they could get mined phosphorus? Human urine. It’s been done for centuries. It works for crops in small quantities. And we don’t seem to overuse it. Anybody want to devise an industrial scope urine generator?