How phosphates feed the world

By Doug Belle | January 18, 2018

Demographers predict the world’s population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050. With a middle class that is growing and demanding more dairy and meat in their diets, we’ll soon need far more food—as much as 70 percent more—than we have now. That means huge increases in the amounts of corn, wheat, and other grains to feed the animals that produce these products, as well as the greater amounts of these crops that we humans will consume directly.

The world’s farmers have already increased production of grain and oilseeds by 25 percent since 2012. Expanding the area that's now under cultivation will contribute a meager four percent of what is required. There is simply not enough arable land to feed the growing world, and natural or organic fertilizers don’t contain enough nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus to enhance production to the extent we need. Fortunately, we have fertilizers—efficient and potent soil enrichers—that we’re working to improve all the time.

Phosphates (P2O5) are a naturally occurring form of the element phosphorus (P) that plants need for photosynthesis. Phosphate fertilizers originate from phosphate rock, which occurs naturally and is found in sedimentary deposits of prehistoric fish and shark bones. There are also igneous deposits in Africa and Brazil that are the result of volcanic activity. Ninety percent of the world’s supply of phosphate comes from just five countries: Morocco (Western Sahara), Saudi Arabia, China, Jordan, and the United States.

Together with nitrogen (N) and potassium (K), phosphorus is an essential component of fertilizers that high-yield crops like corn, canola, wheat, and rice need to grow and produce the nutrition we depend on. In a study of 427 agricultural sites carried out by the Canadian province of Alberta’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, 81 percent of wheat sites, 90 percent of barley sites, and 72 percent of canola sites responded to the addition of phosphate fertilizer.

Like every other industry and sector, agriculture is also benefiting from new digital technologies that are helping to optimize both the amount of fertilizer used and how it’s applied. Farmers now have very high-tech equipment that uses GPS-based systems. Crops are fertilized with such precision that air seeders can plant one granule of fertilizer in a hole with a single seed.

To make phosphate rock effective in fertilizer, it’s first mined and beneficiated to remove clay and sand. Sulfuric acid is then applied to affect a chemical reaction that produces phosphoric acid and gypsum. The phosphoric acid is clarified, concentrated, and transferred to a granulation plant. There it’s reacted with ammonia to produce monoammonium phosphate (MAP) or diammonium phosphate (DAP). These products contain the water-soluble form of phosphoric acid (phosphorus) that can be absorbed by plants. That bag of fertilizer you buy for your lawn probably has a formulation like 8-8-8, which contains 8 percent N, 8 percent P2O5, and 8 percent K. These blends are produced by mixing MAP or DAP with potash, urea, or other nitrogen compounds in the required quantities to produce the desired N-P-K-combination.

Phosphates are not a renewable resource, but we’re in no danger of exhausting the supply anytime soon, even as demand grows. Production is on the rise, with the largest increases in the next four years expected to be in Saudi Arabia and Morocco. Saudi Arabia has hundreds-of-years of reserves in the desert that are now being developed. The country has constructed an 800-mile-long railroad to move the phosphate it extracts to new chemical processing plants on the Persian Gulf where fertilizer can be produced and shipped to customers worldwide. Morocco, too, has several hundred years of phosphate supply waiting to be mined. And, there are undersea reserves and caches in remote locations all over the world that will be developed when the lower-cost resources are depleted.

With mining experts of every type all over the world, our very active phosphate practice has developed a center of excellence in Florida. From this base, we have been providing services to the three major phosphate producers in the U.S. We’re proud to have executed the largest fertilizer project in the last twenty years for Mosaic, enabling it to convert its New Wales DAP3 granulation plant to produce 200 tph of its patented MicroEssentials® products.

We’re continuing our work to find better, more efficient, and more cost-effective ways to improve phosphate production. With 67 million new lives being added every year, the people of the world are depending on it.