July 13, 2023

The Discovery of Phosphorus – and How to Outwit the King of Morocco

[Advisory:  Although this blog treats a serious subject, I’m afraid it also contains some feeble attempts at bathroom humor. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.]

In 1669 in Hamburg, Germany, a thirty-nine-year-old alchemist named Hennig Brandt was messing around in his laboratory chasing the alchemist dream of turning base metals into gold. But his approach was very different from that of his fellow alchemists. That night he had cooked up a concoction of ingredients including his own excrement, and after heating it up, he found that he had produced some waxy white nuggets that gave off a whiff of garlic while emanating a mysterious radiant glow.

According to a report of this historic incident, which was later immortalized by a painter, Brandt dropped to his knees, looked toward the heavens, and then warned his two assistants to stand back “as a terrifying shaft of blue vapor shot up from a glass globe.”

Brandt named his discovery after the Greek word for the planet Venus – phosphorus, which means something like “bringer of light.” But, significantly, the Latin word for Venus translates as “Lucifer.” As Dan Egan whose account of this discovery is described in his book, The Devil’s Element, comments with a literary flourish:

That actually would have been a better name for the alchemist’s discovery because he soon learned that his curious nuggets had a propensity to spontaneously combust and burn as ferociously as anything that dropped from the nib of Dante’s quill. 

It wasn’t long, in fact, before people started referring to phosphorus as the Devil’s Element, and not only because it happens to be the thirteenth element discovered. The name stuck because of its dastardly toxicity and explosiveness.  

Egan goes on to remark that even to this day its explosive properties are reportedly being made use of in bombs Russians are using in Ukraine. And, historically, we know for certain of even more devastating uses of phosphorus in wartime. 

By one of the greatest of wartime ironies, several centuries after the discovery of phosphorus in Hamburg, that city suffered one of the worst fire bombings of World War II when the allied forces unleashed wave after wave day after day of these incendiary phosphorus-filled bombs on the citizens Hamburg. Egan spends several pages recounting these unspeakable horrors.

I will spare you the horrifying details of his account except to cite two brief passages. In the first, one of most vile of war criminals, known to history as England’s “Bomber Harris,” reportedly said, quoting the Bible in referring to the Germans: “They sowed the wind and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”  (You can read more about Bomber Harris in Nicholson Baker’s book about World War II called Human Smoke.)

And what did the whirlwind feel like to those who were caught in its fiery maelstrom?

The thousands of fires lit on that unusually hot dry night merged in a matter of minutes into something war planners had never seen – a two-mile-wide whirlwind firestorm that burned as hot as a furnace. The winds that were sucked into the cyclone to feed the oxygen-starved flames were powerful enough to topple trees three feet in diameter, ferocious enough to tear children from their mothers’ arms.


But quite apart from the uses of phosphorus in wartime explosives, these phosphorus nuggets, if you should be unfortunate enough to come across one in your beachcombing forays, are also extremely dangerous.  Egan relates one such story of an elderly man who found a quarter-sized orange stone as he was walking along a beach near the Baltic Sea. He innocently dropped it into his pocket but ten minutes later, he heard a “pop.” The nugget had burst into flames and then began to sear into the man’s thigh like a molten knife. Fortunately, he was rescued and his life was saved, but he had to spend two months in a hospital and still suffers chronic debilitating pain and requires pills to sleep.

You definitely don’t want to fool with this stuff. All it takes is a little heat, such as was provided by this man’s pocket against his warm skin, to cause it to erupt into flame.  

So now you know a little about how phosphorous was discovered and some of its incendiary properties. But our interest in it in these blogs is of course mainly about how it has been used to fertilize crops and then, when it leaks into our waters, the damage it can wreak by causing noxious blue-green algae blooms to form. 

But where my first blog left off was with another alarming problem with phosphorus altogether. Since we now know how crucial phosphorus is for life on this planet, the prospect of its supplies running out, possibly within our lifetime, is obviously a threat even more dire than that of climate change. So now we have to confront that menace and find out if there is any way to avoid having to depend on the good will and generosity of the King of Morocco who is the sovereign over most of the world’s now known phosphorus reserves.  

The rest of this blog will consider recent efforts to find other means to provide abundant sources of phosphorus, but before we begin to consider this topic, I have a question for you.

What happens when you pee?

Well, I know what happens when I do once I get up at night to urinate. Because of my prostatic hypertrophy, I have a very weak stream, so half of it often dribbles down my thigh instead of landing in my toilet bowl. But I am not talking about that. I’m asking you what your pee actually consists of, chemically speaking. Any guesses?

I’ll save you the suspense. What you are depositing into your toilet bowl, if you are luckier than I am, is nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus. Does this give you any ideas?

If you know your chemistry better than I do (which should be a snap since I’ve forgotten most of my high school chem taught to me by an elderly woman named “Miss Newton” -- I am not making this up), you will remember the abbreviations of these elements: N (for nitrogen), P (for phosphorus), and K (for potassium).  And what are the ingredients in the bag of fertilizer that you can pick up at your local Ace Hardware store: N-P-K.

Bingo! (You can also imagine a light bulb.)

Not long ago, Elizabeth Kolbert loaded up a jug of her and her husband’s pee and drove it up to Brattleboro Vermont in order to check out an enterprise called the Rich Earth Institute. The institute’s stated goal is “a world with clean water and fertile soil achieved by reclaiming the nutrients from our bodies.” Its principal aim is to promote a practice known as urine diversion, or, to use the lingo of the trade, peecycling.

The institute’s director of its Urine Nutrient Reclamation Program, Arthur Davis, showed Kolbert the four kinds of urine-diverting toilets it has for that purpose, which allows it to collect and then treat urine so that it can be used to fertilize the crops of local farmers. Otherwise, this valuable resource would otherwise just be flushed down the drain, or, that is, a regular toilet.

As Kolbert explains:

The Rich Earth Institute has enlisted a network of volunteers around Brattleboro, who drop off their donations at specially designated depots or, in some cases, pay to have their pee picked up. After it has been pasteurized, the urine is distributed to local farmers. Peecycling can cut down on the amount of conventional fertilizer that the farmers purchase. At the same time, it keeps nutrients out of the sewage system and, by extension, it is hoped, out of Vermont’s waterways.

Of course, the amount of urine collected and treated in this way is – sorry, for the tired trope – “just a drop in the bucket,” as Kolbert acknowledges: “In an average year, New York City residents piss out about a billion gallons; Shanghai residents, three billion,” whereas the institute’s annual haul is a paltry twelve thousand.  Davis is frank to acknowledge this, but just as a journey begins with a single step, according to the ancient Chinese proverb, so these urine-reclamation centers are just the beginning of what Davis and others hope will be a revolutionary movement to harvest the fertilizing potential of urine instead of just pissing it away, as one might say.

In any case, the key is to reduce our dependence on rock-based phosphorus. Toward that end, Egan has some much more promising suggestions to offer. These not only conserve phosphorus, but follow and adapt traditional Asian methods of fertilization that also draw on animal and human production of what we still regard as “waste,” whereas we are actually wasting another valuable resource. After all, how do you think Asians have managed for thousands of years to feed their enormous populations, so much larger than ours?

I’m talking about shit.

Egan is on to this, and the last chapter of his book is full of information about various projects around the world that are now underway to use and process this invaluable resource. We need to start thinking in a new way, he urges, about human and animal excreta. It is not waste -- anything but. It’s not too late to follow the Asian way, buttressed by today’s waste removal technologies. We need, in short, to begin to practice the art of what I have lately come to call fecal fecundity.  

As Egan notes, “What Europe had come to view as noxious waste had, since antiquity, been recognized in many cities across the East as precious commodity.”

I say it is a novel way to think about the value of harvesting shit, but, in fact, it is not that new. Furthermore, there were some farsighted Europeans who centuries ago were already aware of the treasures contained in manure. Egan quotes an interesting passage from the great 19th century writer, Victor Hugo, who advocated this course in his book, Les Misérables:

All the human and animal manure that the world wastes, if put back into the land instead of being thrown into the sea, would suffice to feed the world. Those heaps of excrement at boundary-posts, those cartloads of muck jolted through the streets at night, those frightful vats at the municipal dumps, those fetid seepings of subterrain sludge that pavements hide from you—do you know what they are? They are the meadow in flower, green grass … thyme and sage, they are game, they are cattle … they are fragrant hay, golden wheat, they are the bread on your table, they are the warm blood in your veins, they are health, they are you, they are life.

James Elser is a University of Montana ecologist and the director of Arizona State University’s Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance. He, too, sees the fertilizing gold in what we have been accustomed to deposit into our toilets and flush away into our sewage systems: “If all manures were recycled and returned for [agricultural] production, I think you could displace halt of the mined fertilizer.”

Egan concurs and adds his own comment: “In other words, if we aggressively refined manure for fertilizer, we might essentially double the life of existing phosphorus reserves.”

As I’ve indicated, such efforts are already well underway at various universities and companies around the world, and Egan reviews some of them in his last chapter but here, for illustrative purposes, I will mention just one such revolutionary undertaking. By one of those charming accidents of history, it is taking place in phosphorus’s hometown – Hamburg. And today’s alchemical wizard, so to speak, is a man named Martin Lebek, a civil engineer with a Ph.D. Lebek’s charge for the company he works for, which has thirty thousand employees, is, effectively, to transmute the base sludge of crap into the gold of factory-grade fertilizer. 

I won’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the process involved – indeed, Lebek said he was not at liberty to disclose that information to Egan because other companies are also pursuing their own similar efforts to recycle waste products – but apparently it involves working with sewage sludge ash to release phosphoric acid used to make chemical fertilizer.  

According to Egan, Lebek believes that his plant will be fully operational by the end of the year and is confident that “this recycling technology, applied nationally, could dramatically reduce Germany’s reliance on phosphorus imports.” In short, the objective is to become phosphorus independent so that one can just tell the King of Morocco to blow smoke up his sorry shit-filled ass. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

I will let Egan have the final more sedate word, which ends his book as well as this blog:

Lebek knows the story started when phosphorus’ elemental powers were unleashed just across the Elbe River more than three centuries ago. Now, less than a century after the city was burned to the ground by Allied bombers dropping phosphorus from the heavens, Hamburg is coaxing from its own ashes a more sustainable food system, and future.

“It is,” Lebek said of the phosphorus recovery plant rising along the west bank of the Elbe River, “phosphorus coming home.” 

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