Daily Bulletin


The Conversation

  • Written by Federico Volpin, PhD Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

To mark the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements we’re taking a look at some of the elements used by researchers in their work.

Today’s focus is phosphorus, an element that is vital for life but of limited supply. But we can recover phosphorus from a source that we all give away freely, every day, our urine.

Phosphorus, number 15 on the periodic table, can be highly toxic and flammable and has been used in warfare as an incendiary device, yet it is also essential for life.

As the famous science writer Isaac Asimov said in his 1974 book, Asimov on Chemistry:

Life can multiply until all the phosphorus has gone and then there is an inexorable halt which nothing can prevent.

Read more: Titanium is the perfect metal to make replacement human body parts

That’s because phosphorous is essential to all living organisms. It forms the backbone of our DNA as well as the molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP) that is found in cells and captures chemical energy from the food we eat.

We have yet to find a single living being that does not require phosphorous to survive. But we don’t have an endless supply of phosphorus, and that’s where my research comes in.

Demand grows for phosphorus

Demand for phosphorus and nitrogen increased dramatically in the 20th century as it was found to play a crucial role in fertiliser used for growing crops.

In just over 50 years (between 1961 and 2014) fertiliser production increased tenfold due to the so-called green revolution.

That's a relief! We have a way to recover phosphorus from our urine Phosphorus is an important ingredient in many fertilisers used to help grow our plant based foods. Shutterstock/otick

This allowed for a worldwide increase in the agricultural production, particularly in the developing world, which was used to feed an ever-growing global population.

The high demand for nitrogen was met by ramping up a process that captures nitrogen and hydrogen from fresh air and uses it to synthesise ammonia (the major nitrogen-based fertiliser). As the air in Earth’s atmosphere is made of 78% nitrogen, synthetic ammonia production was only limited by its cost.

But phosphorous is generally stored in solid or liquid form, and the cheapest way to cope with the high demand for phosphorous fertiliser was to extract if from phosphate rocks.

Phosphate rocks are a resource that is both limited and not equally distributed. The top five phosphate rocks holders – Morocco and Western Sahara, China, Algeria, Syria, and Brazil – account for 84% of the world reserves. Australia holds just 1.6%.

As phosphate rocks are a finite and non-renewable resource, the continuous extraction is causing uncertainties in our future supplies.

The wee supplies of phosphorus

One solution is to look for other supplies of phosphorus, and that’s where you and I can play a role. Our urine is an excellent source of raw material for phosphorous.

Each one of us excretes up to half a kilogram of phosphorous per year, just through our urine. This makes urine the single largest source of phosphorous from urban areas.

Back in the 17th century, the German chemist Hennig Brandt chose urine to isolate elemental phosphorous. In his experiment, he boiled hundreds of litres of urine down to a thick syrup until a red oil distilled up from it.

He collected the oil and cooled down the urine. After discarding the salts formed at the bottom of the mixture, he added back the red oil. By heating back the mixture for 16 hours, a white fume would come out, then oil, and finally phosphorous.

He was actually searching for the legendary Philosopher’s Stone that would supposedly turn any metal into gold. He might have failed in that, but he showed how easy it was to isolate phosphorous from urine with unsophisticated tools.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Today’s approaches to recycling of phosphorous from our wastes are way more practical and economical compared to Brandt’s method.

An increasing number of companies are looking to recover phosphorus from waste water, including from urine.

New urine-derived fertilisers have entered the market and the race is on to find the optimal technology to convert smelly urine into a safe, non-odorous commercial fertiliser.

In Australia, researchers from the University of Technology Sydney have developed a process that uses urine as a raw material to produce fertiliser and freshwater. Selected microorganisms are used to oxidise the (smelly) compounds in raw urine and convert volatile ammonia into more stable nitrates.

The treated urine is then filtered through a membrane, which retains the microorganisms allowing for their re-use, while allowing the soluble phosphorus and nitrogen to pass through. Treated and filtered urine is concentrated to reach nutrients concentration similar to commercial fertilisers.

Read more: Silver makes beautiful bling but it's also good for keeping the bacterial bugs away

At present, this fertiliser – named UrVal short for “You are Valuable” – is being tested at the Royal Botanical Garden in growing parsley.

That's a relief! We have a way to recover phosphorus from our urine Parsley grown using UrVal fertiliser at the Sydney Royal Botanical Garden. Dr. Ibrahim El Saliby, Author provided

Clearly, these new innovations in nutrients recovery from wastes allow us to reduce the dependence on a finite resource (phosphorous).

But they could also enable us to explore the possibility of one day producing food outside of planet Earth where we need fertiliser. Phosphate rocks may not be available in such places, but we’d have plenty of urine.

Authors: Federico Volpin, PhD Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

Read more http://theconversation.com/thats-a-relief-we-have-a-way-to-recover-phosphorus-from-our-urine-117751

Writers Wanted

Heading back to the playground? 10 tips to keep your family and others COVID-safe

arrow_forward

Qatar expresses 'regrets' for 'any distress' to women invasively searched in baby incident

arrow_forward

Education & More – Family Tips on How to Settle in Bangkok

arrow_forward

The Conversation
INTERWEBS DIGITAL AGENCY

Politics

Prime Minister Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News

KIERAN GILBERT: Kieran Gilbert here with you and the Prime Minister joins me. Prime Minister, thanks so much for your time.  PRIME MINISTER: G'day Kieran.  GILBERT: An assumption a vaccine is ...

Daily Bulletin - avatar Daily Bulletin

Did BLM Really Change the US Police Work?

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has proven that the power of the state rests in the hands of the people it governs. Following the death of 46-year-old black American George Floyd in a case of ...

a Guest Writer - avatar a Guest Writer

Scott Morrison: the right man at the right time

Australia is not at war with another nation or ideology in August 2020 but the nation is in conflict. There are serious threats from China and there are many challenges flowing from the pandemic tha...

Greg Rogers - avatar Greg Rogers

Business News

AppDynamics Solves Visibility Gap Between Traditional Infrastructure and Cloud Environments

New Full Stack Observability Platform, Integration With Cisco Intersight Workload Optimizer and Cloud Native Visualisation Features Provide Cross Domain Insights and Analytics of Business Perfor...

Hotwire Global - avatar Hotwire Global

Why Your Small Business Should Bulk Buy Hand Sanitiser

As a small business owner, employee and customer safety is at the very top of your priority list. From risk assessments to health and safety officers, appropriate signage and proper briefing...

News Co - avatar News Co

How Phone Number Search In Sydney Can Help Your Business

To run a successful business, keeping track of your company and competitors are the major factors. With a lot of tools, available businesses have options to stay current. One way in which busine...

News Co - avatar News Co



News Co Media Group

Content & Technology Connecting Global Audiences

More Information - Less Opinion