It’s phosphorus.  The element of great importance – its essential for life – humans and animals need it for healthy bone formation, and plants need it to grow.  Without it for fertilization of food crops, the supplies will drop over a few years much further than markets can adapt.  Some people will fall into malnutrition, starvation and the other grim realities of not enough food to go around -that’s not even to consider fuel crops.  Food vs. fuel and the ethanol debates pale to insignificance when compared to the phosphorus matter.

Mining phosphorus, reclaiming it and other means to keep it in the agricultural cycle is crucial – it can be the one thing that will impact even the very rich.  As the food crops are shorted of phosphorus, the food quality will suffer, which may force even the wealthy to act to grow garden crops in phosphorus soils.  The rich might well want plantations in phosphorus rich areas in a century.

So when Tyler Hamilton found Ostara Nutrient Recovery Technologies for his CleanBreak site – there has to be a post here.

Ostara Reactor Installed at Suffolk. Click image for the largest view.

Today the world market for phosphorus is mined from ancient sea floors, likely volcanic deposits buried eons ago.  The good ones are in the U.S., Morocco and far west China.  The problem is the U.S reserve is in decline, Morocco is expected to peak in the next decade or so and China’s reserve is inexact.  China will certainly in time hoard for its own population and Morocco is a fast becoming a monopoly source for everyone else.

We’re getting to a point of “what are you willing to pay” to eat well.

Urbanization as Hamilton frames it “messed up the phosphorus cycle by redistributing this valuable resource and letting so much of it concentrate where it shouldn’t be, such as lakes, rivers, and oceans, where it throws local ecosystems out of whack. So we need to do a better job of managing phosphorus resources, and part of that is to recycle it from local waste streams, including the slop collected at municipal wastewater treatment plants.”

Ostara, using technology licensed from the University of British Columbia, has figured out how to economically extract phosphorus, ammonia and magnesium from the sludgy liquids in municipal waste water. Then it turns these nutrients into a pure, slow-release compound that can be used as and blended with commercial fertilizer products. It calls the pelletized compound Crystal Green.

The process is most efficient at removing phosphorus from the waste stream. About 85 per cent is extracted and recycled as fertilizer. At the same time, the process dramatically reduces the amount of phosphates and ammonia that makes it into rivers and lakes.  Phosphorus runoff will cause algae blooms, microorganism growth explosions and other plant growth in lakes that can kill fish and make the water unfit for use.

One can exploit the microorganism growth to recover a biogas and the refuse is phosphorus rich, this works well on the small scale, yielding a low-grade fertilizer additive.  But at municipal wastewater levels the volumes would overwhelm even a large facility.  It’s not an economical approach.

Another path is Milorganite, a product of the Milwaukee wastewater facility.  There the wastewater is dried out and treated for safety and sold as a fertilizer.  These processes can have heavy metals and other contaminants.  It’s an energy intense, sophisticated means to get great fertilizer for areas like lawns and golf courses where price sensitivity isn’t as great.

The Ostara approach is to exploit the waste treatment weakness.  Plants that practice biological nutrient removal and anaerobic sludge digestion, concentrate large quantities of nitrogen and phosphorus in their sludge handling streams.  The dissolved nutrients combine with magnesium to form struvite scale in piping, pumps and valves.  Plugging of the piping systems leads to pumping inefficiencies, reduced system capacity, high operating costs, maintenance shutdowns and pipeline failures. Struvite scale has an appearance and strength similar to concrete and must be removed either mechanically (using chisels or jackhammers) or by flushing with strong acids.   So far cities have been hammering the stuff out and most likely dumping it into the land fills.

Ostara has designed a reactor that runs a chemical reaction that processes the sludge liquids and recovers phosphorus and other nutrients, dramatically reducing the phosphorus and ammonia load returned to the liquid treatment train by 90% and 20% respectively. The recovered nutrient stream is mixed with appropriate doses of magnesium chloride and caustic to precipitate out struvite pellets.

The pellets are then harvested from the reactor and formulated to become Crystal Green®, a high-quality environmentally friendly, slow-release, commercial fertilizer that provides revenue for the wastewater system’s operator.

Ostara’s Pearl® technology is based on a proprietary fluidized bed reactor that recovers ammonia and phosphate from nutrient rich fluids. The technology, created at the University of British Columbia, uses a proprietary fluidized bed reactor design, which removes approximately 85% of the influent phosphorus, but also results in the formation of a fertilizer in granular form consistent with that used in the fertilizer industry.

Ostara has been attracting international attention, investors and customers. It has four commercial demonstration plants, including its first systems in Edmonton, and now has its eye on the European market.

“The traction is starting to happen,” says Phillip Abrary, co-founder and chief executive of six-year-old Ostara, adding that interest is also building in Canada. “There are a couple of fairly significant Canadian cities in the design phase right now. They’ve invested a lot of time and money to spec out our system.”

Ostara has been attracting international attention, investors and customers. It has four commercial demonstration plants, including its first systems in Edmonton, and now has its eye on the European market.

Phosphorus Price History 1600 to 2011. Click image for the largest view.

For everyone else – it may be time to have a word with a few city councilpersons. When you look at the price history of the phosphorus and potassium fertilizers at commercial scale for farmers it will remind you of oil prices.  Phosphorus is up 80% from a year ago.


2 Comments so far

  1. Musson on May 23, 2011 7:20 AM

    Living close to chicken producing operations here in North Carolina, I know that these farms produce huge quantities of phosphorus. Corn and soybean farmers in the area are happy to have the used chicken litter spread across their fields. However, excess phosphorus coming off these chicken farms has long been considered an environmental hazard.

    Here is a link to a story in Science Daily that describes one company’s process for mining phosphorus from chicken manure.

  2. Dr. Hanumantharao Tenneti on July 12, 2011 12:15 AM

    P recovery from waste sources is welcome, as the same can be recycled into useful fertilizer

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