Ted Simons: Phosphorus is becoming harder to find. That's important because phosphorus is an essential nutrient for foot growth. The phosphorous group met in Washington D.C. last week to look at ways to conserve phosphorus. ASU researcher James Elser was involved with the event and he joins us now. Thanks for joining us.
James Elser: It's great to be here.
Ted Simons: What is phosphorous?
James Elser: It's the 15th element in the periodic table. It's a very important part of molecules and organisms.
Ted Simons: How is it formed, where is it found?
James Elser: It's formed in stars billions of years ago when the universe was formed we were lucky enough to have it locked up in some rocks here on earth. That's what we have been mining for 50-75 years at a really intense rate to grow crops.
Ted Simons: Where are the largest deposits?
James Elser: By far the largest are in Morocco in northern Africa. We have good deposits in Florida primarily some in North Carolina, Idaho. We have been mostly relying on those in the past but those are getting tapped out.
Ted Simons: How is phosphorus extracted?
James Elser: Gigantic tractors scrape it out of the earth then treated with concentrated sulfuric acid to extract it into Phosphate, then gigantic piles of something called Phoshpogypsum are produced. These are radioactive and quite unpleasant. Ultimately we get concentrated phosphorus used to make fertilizer.
Ted Simons: The key is food growth.
James Elser: One of the keys of the Green revolution is high yield crops, more water use and Green fertilizers. Any of those is broken and the Green revolution goes away.
Ted Simons: I understand we might be running low on phosphorus.
James Elser: There's a lot of it out there but like any other resource we get the easy stuff first. The cheap, good stuff first. Now we're starting to work our way through the cheap, easy stuff. Now we're starting to look at situations where the price is going up. In the price of Phosphate rock went up by 700%. It spiked back down and is trailing back up. That got people's attention. Some are starting to think about these issues.
Ted Simons: It seems to me I remember phosphorus being a problem with water pollution and runoff. If it's running off into something can't we capture that?
James Elser: Yes, that's right. There's the two sides of the sustainability coin. One is supply. The other is sort of what's going away from the system. Phosphorus is used by organisms including organisms in lakes and oceans. When they get a lot of it you get Green algae, Blooms, unpleasant situations because we're leaking so much out of the food system at the farm and in cities, for example. So the answer seems obvious. We need to invent and innovate our way to capturing that phosphorus, recycling it, make a loop the way nature does it and then we'll have continuous supply of as long as we want it, we'll have clean water, clean oceans, clean lakes.
Ted Simons: What's the biggest challenge, recapturing or recycling?
James Elser: A lot of it is out there, different sources, in food waste, animal waste human waste. Many of those things are unpleasant, but nevertheless it's a great thing. We just had a big jobs segment in the show. We think there's a whole new jobs sector about to be created designed around these Green economy, circular economy things with phosphorus recycling one of them.
Ted Simons: As far as research and you are a researcher what are the priorities regarding phosphorus research?
James Elser: So we don't know how to turn these sort of very early processes for phosphorus recapture from food waste, animal and human waste into economically viable technology yet. There's a lot of things that have to be streamlined, processes need to be improved. So we need to be able to perfect those and make them practical. Then figure out all the ways, the barriers to adoption.
Ted Simons: I would imagine recycling really hits something the new widget is discovered that helps with recycling the mining may be scaled back as well.
James Elser: That's right. Mining for phosphorus in the U.S. is going away slowly. It's on its way down but we think rather than let the future mining be somewhere in Morocco and make jobs there for miners why don't we make jobs in the United States for recycling phosphorus from the food system. We already have it. Those jobs will be everywhere in our economy, every city and town.
Ted Simons: The five-year research project, explain what the project is, what it's looking at, how far along you are.
James Elser: This is a project funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation to bring together researchers in the United States and around the world to coordinate their activities. This is related to phosphorus sustainability. It's a five-year project. We just had our first meeting in Washington D.C. at the center for science and policy outcomes that ASU runs in Washington. We had about 25 scientists, scientists, engineers, policy analysts, economists from all kinds of disciplines involved in food and food production and waste and waste handling and water. Then we had or so stakeholders from different agencies like the USDA, EPA. People from private industry, mining companies. Food companies. Growers associations and people involved in the environment.
Ted Simons: So multiple disciplines are interesting. What are you looking for?
James Elser: It's easy for disciplines to work together. Harder to get interdisciplinary groups to work together. You have to get to know each other, speak each other's language, figure out what each will get out of the equation. So that's why these coordination networks are important because it lets that dialogue get started. We're also not just talking among the researchers. We want the researchers to be informed and the research that takes place to be informed by the farmers, the water groups, agencies that are involved in these areas. So we want them to help us choose the research topics to work on.
Ted Simons: We should mention again you mentioned the skyrocketing prices here. That's a bother and a pain for those of us in industrialized nations but the poorer countries this is serious business.
James Elser: Right. In the developed world only a very small part of our food price is actually involved with fertilizer. For the farmer it's different. It's a fair amount of their cost to run the farm. But in a developing world where a lot of insecurity and national security issues are playing out, hungry people who now need to farm more effectively can't afford fertilizer now at the current price much less the price that might be in place 20-30 years from now with more people, more affluent people, bio energy is expanding so we need to figure out a way to have a more sustainable system that's environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable.
Ted Simons: What do we look for. Give us a timetable for a breakthroughs or headline here regarding phosphorus.
James Elser: Well, you really put me on the spot there. Scientists know they should never try to forecast breakthroughs like this. We have great technologies that are getting started, folks like Bruce Rittmann at Arizona State are working on early generation technologies that will be able to take grocery waste, for example, 30-50% of the food in the United States and in developing world is wasted. So to take those waste streams and turn them back into something useful like fertilizer.
Ted Simons: Very interesting stuff. Good luck with your research. Thanks for being here.
James Elser: Great to be here.
Ted Simons: Tomorrow the Arizona corporation commission is considering electrical deregulation. We'll hear the pros and cons. That's Tuesday evening on "Arizona Horizon." That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.