#820: P Is For Phosphorus Phosphate is a crucial element, for farming, and for life. And there aren't too many places to get it. What if it runs out?
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#820: P Is For Phosphorus

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#820: P Is For Phosphorus

#820: P Is For Phosphorus

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ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

You know who you don't mean much anymore? Alchemists. Alchemists - people who look for ways to turn random stuff into gold. I mean, back in the Middle Ages, you met them all the time.

JOHN EMSLEY: Of course, in those days, alchemists were searching for the philosopher's stone. They thought there was this sort of mystical compound that could turn base metals like lead into valuable metals like gold.

KAREN DUFFIN, HOST:

John Emsley is a chemist and science writer. Alchemists - they had looked everywhere for this philosopher's stone thing. And there was one material that was golden and abundant. Everyone has it.

EMSLEY: Alchemists were always fascinated by the golden stream, as it were.

SMITH: The golden stream. He is talking about urine.

DUFFIN: Yes, he is. And back in 1669, there was this one alchemist Hennig Brand. And as the story goes, he had a plan to turn urine into gold. But he needed a lot of pee for it. So naturally, he borrowed some from his neighbors. He also put these bowls out by taverns.

SMITH: Convenient.

DUFFIN: Yes. And then he even got the local convent to pitch in.

EMSLEY: And one evening, he boiled a large volume of urine down.

SMITH: It did not turn into gold magically. But it did turn into something they did not expect. It looked like sort of a ball of wax.

EMSLEY: And suddenly, off came this mysterious compound which glows in the dark.

SMITH: Glows in the dark.

DUFFIN: But that was not all.

EMSLEY: Spontaneously flammable.

SMITH: This is seeming a little magical, he thinks. So he and his friend took this glowing ball of urine, and they paraded it around Europe. I mean, they didn't tell everyone what it was. But...

EMSLEY: Of course, it created quite a stir.

DUFFIN: In part because, though he had no clue what it actually was, that did not stop him from...

EMSLEY: Making ridiculous claims about it improving your memory, improving your sex life and things like that.

DUFFIN: Hennig didn't know it at the time, but what he had discovered was phosphorous. Number 15 on the periodic table, its symbol is the letter P.

SMITH: Phosphorus - or phosphate in its usable form - is in pretty much everything. Some nasty things like bombs - apparently, it explodes when it hits the air. And then there's poison - sure - but also in some nice things, too.

EMSLEY: Flame retardants, food additives, some pharmaceuticals. Coca-Cola contains phosphoric acid, so there's lovely tang to it. Flares sometimes are used at sea. Toothpaste, processed cheese contains a little phosphate as well.

DUFFIN: No phosphorus, no Velveeta. More importantly - no phosphorus, no life.

EMSLEY: Nothing could live without phosphate because it is part of DNA.

SMITH: It's part of who we are. But this thing we would all die without - this element - you can't make it out of anything else. And there's no substitute. It's either phosphorus or nothing. And not to scare you, but there is a limited supply. And we're using a lot of it. So some people are a little worried.

EMSLEY: Since we have a limited amount of it, we know that if we are not very careful, we are going to be in real trouble.

SMITH: Trouble with a capital T - that rhymes with P, and that stands for phosphorus.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMINIC GLOVER, GARY CROCKETT AND JAY GLOVER'S "LOW SLUNG")

SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.

DUFFIN: And I'm Karen Duffin. Today on the show, we scoured the earth for one of the building blocks of the modern world and of life itself.

SMITH: Phosphorus may glow in the dark, but it is not easy to find. It is poisonous. It explodes. And it is mainly concentrated in a place ruled by a king.

DUFFIN: It is a place that almost no outsiders have been, but we will take you there to the world's biggest mine. And we find a tiny band of dreamers who think alchemist Hennig Brand might've been on to something.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOMINIC GLOVER, GARY CROCKETT AND JAY GLOVER'S "LOW SLUNG")

SMITH: To find the phosphorus, you've got to follow the money.

DUFFIN: Jeremy Grantham has the money. He runs a big hedge fund, and he's known for predicting things like the dot-com bust and the 2008 financial crisis. He's also known for his pessimism.

SMITH: His latest concern?

DUFFIN: I understand that you like to talk about phosphorus.

JEREMY GRANTHAM: Well, I don't - I can't say I like to talk about phosphorus. It's a - one of a long list of rather pessimistic topics that I seem to have got myself involved with.

DUFFIN: Phosphate - again, that's the more usable form of phosphorus. Phosphate is a huge market. It's about $76 billion. And most of it goes into fertilizer, which is actually a little problematic because farmers will just pile it onto their crops because they know that plants can only use a small amount of it at a time. So most of that fertilizer - actually, 80 percent of it - just washes right off into rivers and then into the ocean.

SMITH: And once the phosphorus goes to the ocean, it's sort of like it disappears. It's extremely hard to get out of seawater. So all this phosphorus going to waste - it's got Jeremy worried.

GRANTHAM: We're on a finite planet with finite reserves of phosphorus. And we are mining it and running through the supply. That should make the hair on the back of everybody's neck bristle.

SMITH: There are widely ranging estimates for just how close we are to the phosphorus cliff. Maybe we've got 30 years. Maybe we have 300 years. It's hard to estimate. This is Jeremy's take.

GRANTHAM: Whether it's 42 years, 62 years or 82 years doesn't really matter. We have to change our way of growing food.

DUFFIN: We've known for a while that phosphorus was limited. But the price was cheap, and the problem just seemed so distant, so people were kind of like, meh, we'll deal with that problem later.

SMITH: Then 2008 happened - the financial crisis. And along with many commodities, phosphate prices spiked, which - because of its use as a fertilizer - made food prices skyrocket. And now everybody's talking about phosphorus.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CATALYST")

NARRATOR: Across the developing world in 2008, hungry people rioted as food supplies ran low and the price of phosphate rock spiked by 800 percent.

GRANTHAM: I would argue that that was a shot across the bows. That was the first warning to planet Earth that we are beginning to run out.

SMITH: And of course if you didn't take that warning, you could read the U.S. Geological Survey paper that came out the next year predicting peak phosphorous was just 24 years away, meaning we would hit maximum production in 2033. And after that, good luck.

DUFFIN: The estimate was revised, and the price dropped. But people were paying attention now. And all eyes were on Morocco.

GRANTHAM: Morocco has about 75 percent of the world's high-grade, easy-to-get-at phosphates. And that's a pretty overwhelming concentration that makes the whole of OPEC look like pikers.

SMITH: Pikers - small fry. And this country that controls most of our phosphate...

BRENDAN BORRELL: Everybody wants to know what what the Moroccans are doing. And it turns out that they don't want to tell you a lot.

DUFFIN: This is Brendan Borrell. He's a freelance journalist, and he did a story for Businessweek about phosphorus a couple years ago.

BORRELL: And everybody I talked to in the industry sort of feels like, you know, they're trying to use this secrecy to their advantage. That way, they can dictate the price.

DUFFIN: So Morocco is basically playing poker with their phosphorous, and the rest of us just have to make our best bet.

BORRELL: That's exactly right.

SMITH: A little geography here - the phosphorus - this valuable cache of phosphorus is split between Morocco and Western Sahara, which is an area that Morocco says belongs to them. But the locals, the U.N., very few other countries agree. The fight has gone unsettled for more than 25 years now.

DUFFIN: Brendan was able to sneak into the mines in Morocco and look around some. But as soon as he landed in Western Sahara...

BORRELL: We'd get out of the plane, and immediately at the airport, we were sort of swarmed by, like, three or four security officers.

DUFFIN: Who followed him the entire time. The only thing he could see was this one thing just off in the distance.

BORRELL: There is literally a conveyor belt in the middle of the desert. It looks like a mirage in the desert. It's just this strange line that you can see slashing across the horizon. And at a few points, you come closer. And you can see, you know, it looks like - you know, like a supermarket checkout conveyor belt, but it's gigantic.

SMITH: The conveyor belt carries phosphate from the mines in the desert to the ocean to ships for transport. It's 61 miles long. It can be seen from space. It can probably be seen from our satellite. It's amazing. We'll put a link on the website.

DUFFIN: And the future of the world's food supply rides in part on that conveyor belt - though the Moroccans won't say how much of the phosphate is in the Western Sahara on that conveyor belt versus in Morocco. What they did tell Brendan was...

BORRELL: We lose money on that mine. You know, we - it's only a few percent of our total production.

DUFFIN: Do you believe them?

BORRELL: No.

DUFFIN: He said there's way too much security - like, military grade, including checkpoints and landmines - to believe that what they're guarding isn't incredibly valuable.

SMITH: Whatever the price tag is, it boils down to this. The king of Morocco controls most of the world's phosphate.

BORRELL: It's kind of amazing that our future food supply depends so much on what happens in this one country.

SMITH: If only there were some other supply of phosphate other than the ocean, where it's too hard to get, and Morocco - who knows what the future there is? - some other little fountain of phosphorus. There is someone who has a solution to this. Kim Nace from Vermont.

KIM NACE: We're all our own now little fertilizer production factories.

DUFFIN: Probably not going to put that on my Tinder profile anytime soon. But technically, Kim is right.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHIELI MINUCCI AND EMANUEL KALLINS' "DRUNKEN HAWAIIAN")

DUFFIN: And this, dear listeners, is where we will bring you a little drop of hope.

SMITH: After the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHIELI MINUCCI AND EMANUEL KALLINS' "DRUNKEN HAWAIIAN")

SMITH: Remember that guy from the Middle Ages, Hennig Brand, the man who collected his neighbors' urine, boiled it up and discovered phosphorus? Weirdly, he's not the last person to do that.

DUFFIN: I heard about someone who is doing this today in Brattleboro, Vt. Remember Kim who we just heard from?

Wait. You had actual, like, tanks of urine in your front yard?

NACE: Oh, yeah - big ones. Yeah, big ones for a long time.

DUFFIN: To explain how those tanks of urine got into her front yard, we should go back to Kim's childhood. She has long been intrigued by sanitation. She says she would visit her aunt in New York.

NACE: And when I was little and I saw those skyscrapers, the very first thing I thought about always was, like - how do they flush the toilets?

DUFFIN: Kim actually did her college thesis about toilets that compost waste. And in 2012, she and a man named Abe Noe-Hays, who made composting toilets, founded a research institute, the Rich Earth Institute.

SMITH: That seems like it's kind of a play on.

DUFFIN: Yeah, they actually originally wanted to call it the Poop-stitute (ph).

SMITH: The Poop-stitute - I love it.

DUFFIN: Right. It is funny, but it is not quite accurate.

NACE: Right away, he knew that the first project was going to be a urine project - that we wanted to start with urine.

ABRAHAM NOE-HAYS: The urine is really where it's at.

DUFFIN: That is Abe. He and several others told me poop is the problem child of the toilet. It's harder to transport. It's filled with pathogens. But urine, on the other hand...

REBECCA RUETER: You know, urine is actually fairly sterile. It's when it gets combined with poop that it becomes more dangerous.

SMITH: This is Rebecca Rueter, a former board member of the institute.

DUFFIN: People keep talking, saying bad things about poo today. I've heard a lot of people say bad things about poo today.

RUETER: Well, it's - separate, they're better than together. You know, it's like (laughter) - it's like a couple you always love but they hated being with each other.

(LAUGHTER)

RUETER: So kind of - separate, they're doing so well you're happy that they're not together anymore.

SMITH: And I guess that's the key part, as Hennig Brand stumbled on in 1669. Urine is not just waste. It is sort of gold because it is filled with lots of valuable nutrients. But for the purposes of the story, it is the phosphorus that people want.

DUFFIN: We get phosphorus from phosphate rocks. And those rocks turn into soil, which feeds the plants, which feed us. And the phosphorus that we eat goes straight through us, right into our urine. And Abe and Kim's idea is that if we can just recycle that urine instead of flushing it, we have sustainably produced fertilizer forever.

SMITH: It's an idea some bigger companies are experimenting with, working directly with sewage plants in big cities like London and Chicago. But there in Vermont, they're taking a more hands-on approach.

NACE: So we created that the Urine Brigade and - literally, that was our committee. There were, like, six of us. We sat out on my back porch. And we said, how are we going to get this urine from people? What are we going to do?

NOE-HAYS: Our biggest fear was definitely that we would become, like, sort of a hideous laughingstock.

DUFFIN: Rebecca Rueter was in the Urine Brigade, so she offered to try to find some people with kind hearts and full bladders. And she did find them - at a church.

RUETER: And it's a community chorus, which means it's open to whoever wants to come and sing.

DUFFIN: Every practice, there was a break where people could announce things.

RUETER: You know, library fundraising and school bake sales.

DUFFIN: Other community events. So at practice one night, Rebecca sat in the chorus as usual, waited nervously for the break. And then she stood up and she said...

NACE: I would like to ask you to think about a completely new thing, and this is collecting your urine and bringing your urine, you know, in a little jar - or a big jar - to Kim's house. And we really need as much urine as possible in order to test our hypothesis. And nobody, like, jumped up and down out of their chair and raised their hands, but people came to me one-on-one afterwards.

SMITH: I don't want to offend anybody, but this is the most Vermont story I have ever heard in my life.

NACE: There is more. The brigade - they collected their urine in recycled bottles from the granola factory.

SMITH: There's really a granola factory.

NACE: Yes, there is. And to get the word out even further, the next year, they sponsored a float in the annual Strolling of the Heifers Parade.

SMITH: I'm not even going to ask.

NACE: Cows marching through town.

SMITH: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Give me a P.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: P.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Give me a P.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: P.

DUFFIN: By the end of that first summer, the Urine Brigade had a pretty good haul.

NACE: We had 60 people and 600 gallons of urine.

SMITH: So 600 gallons of urine - that sounds like a lot. That sounds successful. But can they actually use it straight on the fields?

DUFFIN: Well, I went to find out.

NACE: OK. So the next place we're going to go now is to the farm. We have two farms that we work with now.

DUFFIN: Kim and I drove to a farm just on the outskirts of town run by this guy, Dean Hamilton.

DEAN HAMILTON: And I guess you'd call me a retired dairy farmer.

DUFFIN: He does still farm. He grows hay.

How much - tell me about the size of the hay farm.

HAMILTON: Well, jeepers, there's 360, give or take, acres on the farm.

DUFFIN: But 12 years ago, Dean sold all his cows.

HAMILTON: 2006 - it was a sorry day that the - milked the cows in the morning, and off they went.

DUFFIN: But it wasn't just nostalgia. He lost something else that day.

HAMILTON: Without the cows now and a source of fertilizer now, my fields can use all the nutrients they can get right now.

DUFFIN: So Dean signed up to be their test field. He gets their urine after they process it. They actually pasteurize it, like orange juice. And then he loads the sanitized urine into a container that he pulls behind his tractor, just literally spreading the neighbors' urine across his hay.

You run a hay farm that is entirely fertilized by human urine.

HAMILTON: Right now it is, yup. Yup.

DUFFIN: What does hay grown with cow manure - how does that compare to hay grown with human urine?

HAMILTON: You don't have to use your imagination to see the difference. It's huge. You can see the difference clearly. It easily can double you know, the yield in my hay. You can see the color - you know, darker green.

DUFFIN: He says there is one problem. And that is that there is not enough urine.

We need to get more people using the bathroom.

HAMILTON: Yup. Yup, simple as that. I can find a home for the urine if I have, you know, a bigger supply.

DUFFIN: Abe and Kim - they've worked with the USDA and National Science Foundation, a bunch of others, to do tests there are more scientific. But they show pretty much the same results as Dean can see with his own eyes.

SMITH: So in other words, Kim is right. We are pretty good little fertilizer factories.

DUFFIN: But urine is just a small fraction of how phosphorus gets wasted. Remember, there's farm runoff and wastewater. So companies are working on how to capture that phosphorus as well.

What's the hope and dream - if you get everything you want?

NACE: So I actually wrote out a statement - I think it's still in my bathroom - and I put it up on the wall. And I said, you know, my vision is that, within my lifetime, I would like to see half the people in the world recycling the nutrients from their bodies. So yes, I'm a real dreamer. And...

DUFFIN: What are the odds that your dream comes true?

NACE: What are the odds of that? It really depends on us.

SMITH: Seriously, though, what are the odds of that?

NACE: Well, there are estimates that every single one of us pees about 125 gallons a year...

SMITH: OK.

NACE: ...Which is enough to grow 325 pounds of wheat.

SMITH: I'm going to sell my urine at the Greenmarket.

NACE: (Laughter) You absolutely should.

SMITH: Locally sourced.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD LANG'S "SLIDE BY SLIDE")

NACE: Right, sustainable.

SMITH: Not organic.

NACE: Organic, for the most part.

SMITH: Sort of.

NACE: What are you eating, Robert?

SMITH: Kind of.

NACE: I don't know.

SMITH: Not good things.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD LANG'S "SLIDE BY SLIDE")

SMITH: If you know of a scheme so crazy it just might work, shoot us a note. We're planetmoney@npr.org. Or you can find us on Facebook or Twitter. The producer for today's episode is Jess Cheung. Bryant Urstadt is the editor, and Alex Goldmark is our senior producer.

DUFFIN: Special thanks today to Ahren Britton of Ostara, Amanda Simpson, Jonathan Martin and the helpful people at the International Fertilizer Development Center.

SMITH: Now that you're finished listening to this program, may we recommend another fine podcast? In fact, we made it ourselves. It's called The Indicator from Planet Money. You can find it every single day on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Robert Smith.

DUFFIN: I'm Karen Duffin. Thanks for listening.

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