Running out of phosphorus?

A hijack of the helium thread.

That article scared the bejeezes out of me. Helium, Phosphorus, Water?

I understand how stuff can become scarcer with added population and mining techniques. But does stuff really just disappear?

Helium is everywhere.

Phosphorus is in pretty much everything we eat.

Water is in pretty much anything we touch or see or consume.

Is it really possible to completely run out of this stuff?

Honestly, what I gathered from that article was a lot of hysteria and scare-mongering.

Completely? No.

So scarce that billions of people starve to death? Yeah, that’s doable.

See the thread in Great Debates for more info, but yeah, the article had a very large dose of hyperbole. The issue is not running out completely, but passing peak production of cheap supplies. For phosphorus and most of the items on their list.

Sounds much like the Dihydrogen Oxide scare a while back.

Helium does - it floats to the top of the atmosphere and off into space. Most other stuff just ends up in nonavailable forms - so phosphorus gets washed out to sea and diluted. If we want it back, we just have to wait for fish to absorb the phosphorus, get eaten by birds, and crapped on to atolls (guano).


Unlike most of the elements, though, helium is constantly being produced, in the Earth, by radioactive minerals. The alpha particles given off by many radioactive substances are helium nuclei, and they should not have too much trouble picking up an electron or two underground to become helium atoms.

That is pretty diffuse, though. The primary source of Helium is from natural gas deposits - the same geologic structures that capture methane also hold helium so that it accumulates. Unfortunately, the costs associated with extracting helium from natural gas make it uneconomic for most natural gas production facilities to do this.


Well, yes, but I think you will find that most, if not all, of the helium in the natural gas deposits was originally produced by radioactivity, and diffused into the underground spaces where methane and other gases also accumulate. My point, anyway, was that although, unlike most elements, helium is actually steadily lost from the Earth, it is also unlike most other elements in that it is constantly being created on Earth too. That, of course, says nothing about how quickly readily available sources are likely to be used up.

But the thread was supposed to be about phosphorus, so lets end the helium hijack. Phosphorus is neither being lost from nor created on the planet. There will always be essentially the same amount around somewhere, but that does not mean it may not become significantly more difficult to get in quantity.

, but it is likely to become

It’s ok; we can use arsenic instead.

You have two extremly obvious examples here, esp. if you live in the US. It’s possible to use more water in a given time period (X gallons of water in one week) than can be regenerated through the water cycle* in that time (Y gallons of water in one year, divided by 52 is smaller than X).

  • You know: water from the ocean turns to clouds through the suns heat; the clouds drift inwards till they hit a mountain and condense to rain; the rain flows through the different soil layers until it emerges as spring or flows as river, where we drink it again.

So what do we do when we need more water? We can produce more with different methods than the natural water cycle - but that is going to be very expensive. E.g. we can desalinate ocean water - but that has very high energy costs, and energy itself costs a lot in many places. We could try better cleaning of sewage, but while some kind of waste can be removed with todays technology, the difficult kind (pesticides, artifical hormones) are very very difficult to get rid off.

Similar with phosphor: conventional agro-industry depends on artifical fertilizer, which needs phosphor. If phosphor can no longer be cheaply produced, this means that first the food prices rise, and then the agro-industry collapses, as each year the harvest dwindles.

Can we take a different route? Sure, we could start right now changing to organic agriculture, where crop rotation, bacteria binding gaseous nutrients (at least with N2, don’t remember offhand phosphor) and properly treated animal manure are used instead of artificial fertilizer.

So if you decide “Cheap stuff running out soon will have a huge impact on the economy” is generally correct (and it is), then you can either

  • change your style of living/ production/ rate of use right now and avoid that drastic crash
  • or keep going the way you are used to, and try to scramble to find a different method once it happens.

I find the latter solution much more unpleasant: in the scrambling to find new production methods, markets will temporarily either collapse or prices soar, which will lead to problems for many many people. Avoiding running out of supplies with a moderate reduction in use or smarter/ more efficient use sounds much more logical to me, but sadly, not to the majority of people who have swallowed the usual mantras about expanding markets and other things.

Generally what we’re running out of is cheap, easily accessible resources. If we don’t have technological progress to match our resource depletion everyone’s standard of life will go down as people will be unable to extract excess resources at a rate that would allow as many people to stay in the other sectors of the workforce that create the wealth of our current civilization. In the best case scenario there will be people who attempt to profit from these shortages via speculation, driving up the cost before the resources are actually much harder to get at making the transition very slow and gradual.

In the worst case, no one sees any of the shortages occur and we’re all screwed, but it is quite rare (outside of disasters) for people to not see shortages coming from a long way off. I just have to hope that the people who are trained to see them coming know what they’re doing - I certainly can’t do much to help.