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Phosphorus

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Nina Jäger 2016

1. The Phosphorus Apparatus

Phosphorus is the fifteenth element of the periodic table of elements, and was the thirteenth to be discovered by science. Like the oxygen in the air we breathe and the water we drink, phosphorus makes us up in the flesh. Without it, all living things would perish. Unlike oxygen, however, phosphorus is relatively rare within our everyday environments. This makes phosphorus life-limiting and arguably the most precious of all mineral resources.

by Zachary Caple, Gregory T. Cushman
699 seconds read

2. The Criticality of Phosphorus. Data, Peaks & Politics

The criticality of an element is defined by its economical relevance, the relevance of its most important economic applications and the risks, and future risks of its supply and sustainability. In other words: its current and its future demand and availability.

by Arno Rosemarin, Oliver Gantner
798 seconds read

3. Rifts, Cycles, and Recycles

The human body produces 500 liters of urine and 50 liters of faeces per year. This is equivalent to about half a kilogram of phosphorus. One day’s urine from an adult is sufficient to fertilize a square meter of cropped area for each cropping period.

by Scott Knowles, Zachary Caple, Arno Rosemarin
1011 seconds read

4. Islands. Colonialism and Geopolitics

Understanding Australia’s phosphate mining history puts into context its current controversial relationship with Nauru, Banaba, and Christmas Island (in the Indian Ocean) as refugee detention centres, so critical to the bipartisan Australian policy of stopping asylum seekers who come by sea at all costs.

by Katerina Teaiwa
660 seconds read

5. Deserts. The Geopolitics of Geology

Monopolies of raw materials are as much political and historical as they are based on ‘natural’ resources. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the growing dependency of national food supplies on fertilizer has turned phosphorus into a critical resource within, and as, the catalyst of geopolitical conflicts. Lino Camprubí tells the (post-)colonial and geopolitical history of the Western Sahara—the last African colony that still exists to this day—and gives historic insight into why Morocco holds approximately 75% of the world’s usable phosphate. Timothy Johnson’s article highlights how World War I exposed the vulnerability of a fertilizer-based agricultural system, but also helped install mineral-fueled agriculture.

by Lino Camprubí, Timothy Johnson
1068 seconds read
The world economy ‒ and the planet’s entire human population ‒ depends on a wildly unappreciated resource: phosphorus. Forged by an improbable sequence of nuclear reactions in exploding stars, phosphorus is the most cosmically rare of the six elements needed in large quantities to produce life. It is found in bone, teeth, DNA, RNA, cell membranes, and the energy- transfer molecule ATP. It is also an irreplaceable element in agricultural fertilizers, and a range of industrial chemicals and consumer products, from matchstick heads to detergents to pesticides. Modern life depends on its industrial circulation. It is thus a particular nuanced element for illustrating the globalizing reach of the technosphere. The Phosphorus Apparatus tells the story of that circulation ‒ by tracing a network of technical, earthly, and cultural mediations by following the dramaturgies of modern civilization through past, present, and future.