NSF funds study to conserve phosphorus, a necessary element for life

Fertilizer is essential to sustaining the crop levels needed to feed the growing world population, accounting for the production of 40 to 60 percent of the world’s food supply. A key ingredient in the fertilizers necessary to support high-yield agriculture is phosphorus. Unfortunately, loss of phosphorus to the flow of water can lead to damaged coastal ecosystems. Dr. David A. Vaccari of Stevens Institute of Technology is working on an international project funded by the National Science Foundation titled “Coordinating Phosphorus Research to Create a Sustainable Food System,” the goal of which is to identify and implement solutions to ensure the responsible use and conservation of phosphorus.

“Phosphorus cannot be manufactured, and there is only a finite amount available through mining. This poses a multi-faceted concern to sustainability and requires a multi-disciplinary and comprehensive response,” says Dr. Michael Bruno, Dean of the Charles V. Schaefer, Jr. School of Engineering and Science. “Sustainability science and engineering is a primary focus at Stevens and we are proud to have Dr. Vaccari, who is one of the foremost experts in phosphorus sustainability, to represent the university as he joins other specialists to address this important issue.”

Dr. Vaccari will join a team of experts from multiple disciplines and institutions around the world. As part of the project’s international steering committee, he will investigate the role of engineering and urban systems in phosphorus sustainability. His group will focus on improving recycling methods. Phosphorus can also be conserved by advancing technology, such as using treatment techniques to extract phosphorus before flushing waste into the sea. 

Dr. Vaccari creates vermicompost

Dr. Vaccari makes good use of worms
to create vermicompost from food waste

“Developing more sophisticated recycling technology is not our only response. Community and individual approaches to sustainability are equally important and effective. Vermiculture, which utilizes earthworms to assist in composting, and mulching freshly-cut grass to use as fertilizer instead of buying new bags of fertilizer are two ways everyday people can help conserve phosphorus,” says Dr. Vaccari, who is an aficionado of vermiculture.

Phosphorus is required for all forms of life. It is a necessary component of DNA, cell membranes, and for many other essential functions in all living creatures. However, there is a limited supply of phosphorus in the world, and eventually all the easily available supply will be mined. At the same time, runoff of phosphorus pollutes waterways and coastal zones, where the phosphorus feeds large amounts of algae, called algal blooms. Their decay suffocates the bodies of water, leaving little oxygen for other aquatic life. These areas are ominously called “dead zones” due to the lack of marine life. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, located off the coast of Texas and Louisiana is approximately the size of the entire state of New Jersey, and threatens bottom-living organisms in the area.

“We cannot assume future technology will solve all our problems,” says Dr. Vaccari. “Sustainability is forever; our goal is to determine how we can meet our needs for phosphorus, not just in the near future, but indefinitely.”

Dr. Vaccari is the Director of the Civil, Environmental, and Ocean Engineering Department at Stevens Institute of Technology. He first raised the alarm about the depletion of phosphorus resources in the June 2009 article of the Scientific American magazine. He has been the recipient of numerous honors and awards from such organizations as the American Council of Engineering Companies of NJ, the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors, and the International Association of Water Quality.

Learn more about environmental research at Stevens by visiting the Civil, Environmental, and Ocean Engineering Department website. Visit Undergraduate Admissions or Graduate Admissions to apply.