Yet another weird SF fan

I'm a mathematician, a libertarian, and a science-fiction fan. Common sense? What's that?

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Yet another weird SF fan

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Peak Phosphorus, Again

This time it's Scientific American being hysterical about an alleged phosphorus crisis. (My earlier comments on phosphorus shortages are here.) This article includes the common environmentalist tactic of mentioning a fact that reduces their claim to a triviality followed by dismissing it on thin grounds:

The International Geological Correlation Program (IGCP) reckoned in 1987 that there might be some 163,000 million metric tons of phosphate rock worldwide, corresponding to more than 13,000 million metric tons of phosphorus, seemingly enough to last nearly a millennium. These estimates, however, include types of rocks, such as high-carbonate minerals, that are impractical as sources because no economical technology exists to extract the phosphorus from them. The tallies also include deposits that are inaccessible because of their depth or location offshore; moreover, they may exist in underdeveloped or environmentally sensitive land or in the presence of high levels of toxic or radioactive contaminants such as cadmium, chromium, arsenic, lead and uranium.
“No economical technology” means that it can't compete with present-day rich sources. That doesn't mean it will still be non-economical when the alleged crisis arrives. (I'm reminded of the way environmentalists will point out that nuclear energy costs more than coal, followed by claiming that we must rethink capitalism because coal is damaging and nukes are expensive.) For that matter a world that is using phosphorus at a high rate is unlikely to have much in the way of underdeveloped land and the alleged problem of “environmentally sensitive land” is simply another reason to tar and feather environmentalists.

To take one plausible scenario, if the price of phosphorus rises to that of copper (a metal extracted from ores where it is as common as phosphorus is in ordinary rock), the total cost of the phosphorus consumed in the United States will be less than 1% of the US GNP. I think we can afford it.

By the way, the dead-tree version of the article included a graph illustrating a price run-up of phosphorus prices. For some reason, the online version omitted that—which might have something to do with the price declines since the article was written.


Anonymous Dave M said...

Does poop have a lot of phosphorous in it, or am I thinking of something else?

10:19 PM  
Blogger Joseph said...

Both liquid and solid bodily waste contain phosphorus.

1:34 AM  

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