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The "P" word is Phosphorus

Maybe the last time you heard the word 'phosphorus' was in your high school chemistry class. Or maybe your doctor has talked to you about your bone health. Or maybe your dentist has talked to you about phosphoric acid in soda pop and its effect on tooth enamel. Useful fact: Phosphorus is the second most prevalent mineral in the body (behind calcium). But what else is phosphorus used for, and how does it fit into product development, manufacture, logistics, food production and global trade? 

Planet Money took a look at phosphorus in the business cycle, and found that supplies are scarce, and concentrated in Morocco. For an element essential to industrial food production, this gives Morocco power parallel to OPEC and petroleum products. But in Brattleboro, Vermont, another source of phosphorus is being explored: urine. The Rich Earth Institute has unique strategies for "mining" this resource--instead of flushing it unrecoverably into waste water.  But logistic problems still exist.


Source: "Episode 820: P is for Phosphorus," by Karen Duffin and Robert Smith, NPR: Planet Money, January 26, 2018. [Cover photo is from the linked article: production in Morocco] transcript

Follow up

  • What are some of the properties of phosphorus? By whom and how was it discovered? What are some of the uses for it (in what name brand products)? Where is it found in the human body?
  • What is the useful form of phosphorus, and what problems does it cause in terms of environmental costs? When are we predicted to "run out" of it? Describe the business opportunities and logistics issues that this scarcity is presenting for the Rich Earth Institute in Vermont.