What Is Phosphate?

America Grows On Florida Phosphate


America did not become the "bread basket to the world" by accident.  It required vision, thought, commitment, dedication, ingenuity, and the hard work and risk capital of generations of Americans who we today refer to as the "American farmer."


For the past century American innovation and modernization of farming has made it incredibly productive and financially practical. Much of this farming progress was made possible by the discovery and use of commercial fertilizers.


Through the use of safe and effective fertilizers, American farmers are able to grow healthier crops and produce greater yields per acre.  In fact, because of the availability of fertilizers, farmers are able to produce twice the crops grown in the 1950's on equal acreage.  So commercial fertilizer helps meet the nutritional needs of a growing U.S. and world population while preserving land that would otherwise be needed for farming.


That's where Florida phosphate comes into play.  Seventy-five percent of the phosphate used by farmers across America and gardeners at home comes from the state of Florida.  That's why we're proud to say "America Grows on Florida Phosphate."  The nutrient phosphorus is obtained from Florida phosphate and is a critical ingredient in most fertilizers used by America's farmers.


What is Phosphate Used In?

Just what is phosphate and where did it come from?

Phosphorus is present in the waters of the oceans which, millions of years ago, covered what is now Florida.  As the waters receded or evaporated, the phosphate was left.  Some of Florida's phosphate also is derived from the remains of prehistoric marine animals, such as sharks and manatees.  The largest phosphate deposits are found in the Bone Valley in Central Florida.  These deposits formed 10 to 15 million years ago during the late Miocene or Pliocene ages.


In fact, Florida has an estimated 80 percent of the United States' phosphate deposits.  In the late 1800s, after Capt. J. Frances LeBaron discovered that the Peace River was rich with phosphate pebbles, the state experienced a phosphate rush similar to California's gold rush.


How is phosphate mined and processed?


Phosphate matrix is a combination of phosphate rock, sand, and clay.  A typical Bone Valley phosphate zone lies under about 25 feet of sandy overburden.  The matrix is mined by electronically operated draglines, mixed with water and transported by pipeline to a beneficiation plant for separation of the three components.


The larger sized phosphate pebbles are separated from the clay by washing and screening.  The very fine phosphate particles are separated from the sand in a floatation process.  Clays are pumped through pipelines to settling ponds, while the sands are pumped back to the mine for use as fill material in the land reclamation process.


How is phosphate turned into fertilizer?


Phosphate rock is only slightly soluble; it must be treated chemically for its nutrient to be readily available as a crop fertilizer.  This is done at the chemical fertilizer plant.  The phosphate rock is ground to the consistency of talcum powder, then mixed with sulfuric acid and water.  This produces phosphoric acid and a byproduct called phosphogypsum.


Phosphoric acid is the basic ingredient in phosphate fertilizers.  The phosphogypsum is stored in piles next to the processing plant.  Research is ongoing to find economically viable uses for the material.


How is mined land reclaimed?


After mining in an area is complete, the lands are reclaimed for a variety of uses: wildlife habitat, recreation, cattle and agriculture, homes, and offices.  Reclamation costs an average of $3,000 per acre and is required by the State of Florida.  Mosaic's (then IMC-Agrico) achievements in reclamation have earned the company several prestigious honors, including the "Environmental Achievement Award" from the Corporate Conservation Council of the National Wildlife Federation.


So what is phosphate used for?


The food we get from a farm, whether animal products such as meat or milk, or grain that is raised from the earth, contains large amounts of nutrients taken from the soil.  If the land is to remain productive, these nutrients must be replaced.  This is done with fertilizers containing phosphate.


Of the phosphate produced in Florida, about 95 percent is used in agriculture: 90 percent goes into fertilizer and 5 percent into livestock feed supplements.  The remaining phosphate is used in a variety of products, including many common household items such as soda pop, toothpaste, bone china, and shaving cream.



Phosphate Terms


Phosphate Rock- A mineral containing the element phosphorus, a basic plant nutrient, which is essential to all forms of life.


Dragline- A large machine used in excavation.  In the Florida phosphate industry, draglines with bucket capacities of up to 65 cubic yards are used to remove the overburden and excavate the phosphate matrix.


Overburden- The earth which lies above the phosphate matrix and which must be removed before the matrix is mined.  It is later used for land reclamation.


Matrix- A strata of phosphate, sand, and clays in which Florida land phosphate is found.  This ore-bearing strata is found an average of 25 feet below the earth's surface.


Beneficiation- Beneficiation means separating a wanted mineral from other material that is also contained in the matrix.  In the case of phosphate, this means separating clay and sand from the phosphate rock.  A mechanical process called washing is used to separate the larger phosphate pebbles from the ore.  A process called floatation is used to recover the finer particles of phosphate from the sand.


Washer- A facility where clay is separated from the phosphate matrix with water and vibrating screens.  Here the phosphate pebbles, 1 millimeter and above, are recovered and sent to a stockpile for sale to customers.


Cooling Pond- An integral part of the chemical fertilizer processing system that conserves water by allowing used hot water to cool and continually be recycled in the manufacturing process.


Clays, Phosphatic Clays or Waste Clays- These are clays which are removed from the phosphate matrix.  These clays are sometimes called slimes, a mining term referring to the size of the clay particles.  Clays present a disposal problem because they trap and retain large amounts of water and take long periods of time to dry.  Clays are stored behind earthen dams for settling and drying.


Gypsum- A naturally occurring, finely grained solid consisting primarily of calcium sulfate.  It is also chemically produced when making phosphate fertilizer and is known as phosphogypsum.

Reclamation- Returning land to a beneficial use after mining.

Fertilizer's Role?

It Feeds Us

According to Webster's Dictionary, fertilizer is a material that "enriches the soil, makes it more productive" so that it can provide needed nutrients for plant health and growth.  To the full impact of that definition, it could be said another way: Fertilizer helps feed us.

Farm land must have fertilizer in order to raise food, since the soil alone cannot do it in the proportions necessary to provide food for our ever-growing world population. 

If the land is to be replanted over and over and remain productive, soil nutrients must be replaced each year.

This is done with fertilizer, both natural and commercial.  "Natural" fertilizer usually means manure of some variety, whereas the "commercial" form is a processed product, such as that produced by Mosaic.  In either form, the nutrient chemicals (phosphorus, nitrogen or potassium) are identical -- only the source is different.

Modern, high-yield agriculture demands maximum productivity.  That means increased use of commercial fertilizers is the only practical and reliable source of crop nutrients.  For example, it would require 176 million cows to produce natural nutrients equal to the commercial fertilizers produced at Mosaic's largest plant.  But there are only 65 million cows in the entire United States.

Or, it would require waste from some 96 billion chickens.

And all those cows and chickens would have to be fed -- with more food that requires more fertilizer.

That's why production-oriented food growers rely upon "commercial" fertilizers.  Without it, food production would drop dramatically and food prices would shoot sky high.



Fertilizer Quick Facts

Q:  What are the top three fertilizer-utilizing U.S. crops?

A:  Corn, wheat, and soybeans.


Q:  How much fertilizer does it take to produce a bushel of corn?

A:  Depending on the type of cropping system used, typically 1.5 to 2 pounds of fertilizer nutrients.


Q:  How much fertilizer does it take to produce a bushel of wheat?

A:  Depending on the type of cropping system used, typically 2.5 to 3.5 pounds of fertilizer nutrients.


Q:  How much fertilizer does it take to produce a bushel of soybeans?

A:  Depending on the type of cropping system used, typically 1 to 1.5 pounds of fertilizer nutrients.


Q:  Is the United States a major producer of fertilizer?

A:  Yes, although it depends on the nutrient.  The United States is the world's third largest nitrogen producer and currently has the capacity to produce 12.5 million material tons of ammonia, which is used as a fertilizer, as a building block for other nitrogen products and for industrial uses.

The United States is the world's second largest phosphate producer after China with a capacity to produce over 10 million tons of phosphate.  While the United States is one of only about a dozen countries that produces potash, it is not a major potash producer because of its relatively limited ore bodies.


Fertilizer Basics


Since plant's "daily requirements" for different nutrients vary, scientists and agricultural professionals break up the 14 soil-absorbed nutrients into three categories: primary nutrients, secondary nutrients, and micronutrients.


Primary Nutrients:  Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium


Nitrogen: Essential to Protein

Nitrogen comes from the airl and is a primary building block for all organisms.  It is essential to making proteins, helps keep plants green and it a critical component of soil structure.



The phosphorus in most commercial fertilizers comes from phosphate rock, found in fossil remains originally laid down beneath oceans and later lifted up with land masses.  Phosphorus is found in every living cell.  It is a component of DNA and it also plays vital roles in capturing light during photosynthesis, helping with seed germination, and helping plants use water efficiently.  Plants also use phosphorus to help fight external stress and prevent disease.


Postassium: A Quailty Building Block

Potassium, also known as potash, is mined from deposits deep within the earth that contain the salts evaporated from sea water.  Potassium is essential to the workings of every living cell.  It plays and important role in plant's water utilization and also helps regulate the rate of photosynthesis.  Other aspects of plant health influenced by potassium include the growth of strong stalks, protection from extreme temperatures, and the ability to fight stress and pests such as weeds and insects.


Secondary Nutrients: Calcium, Magnesium, and Sulfur

While nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash are the most important of the essential elements for plant nutrition, they are by no means the only important elements.  Farmers, scientists, and agricultural professionals generally consider calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S) second in importance only to nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, not because they are less essential, but because smaller amounts of those elements are typically needed for most crops.


Micronutrients: Small But Mighty

The third category of essential crop nutrients is called micronutrients.  Plants don't need as much of them as they do primary and secondary fertilizers, but they still can't do without them.  Scientists classify boron (B), chlorine (Cl), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni), and zinc (Zn) as essential micronutrients.  Of these, boron, copper, zinc, and maganese are most often in short supply for growing crops.


Enhanced Efficiency Fertilizers

Researchers work constantly to develop technologies that improve the performance and efficiency of fertilizers.  Enhanced Efficiency Fertilizers (EEF) are fertilizer products that can reduce nutrient losses to the environment while increasing nutrient availability for the plant or the crop.  These fertilizers can either slow the release of nutrients for uptake or alter the conversion of nutrients to other forms that may be less susceptible to losses.  Categories of EEFs include slow and controlled release nitrogen fertilizers; nitrogen stabliziers and phosphate management products.


What's in a Bag?

How much N, P, and K are in your bag of fertilizer?  The numbers found on each bag or bulk shipment of fertilizer tell the farmer or consumer the amount of nutrients being supplied.

The three numbers on your bag of fertilizer are called the "analysis".  It is the percentage of nitrogen, phosphate, and potash that is available to plants from that bag of fertilizer.  For example, a fertilizer product with analysis 5-10-15 contains 5 percent nitrogen, 10 percent phosphate, and 15 percent potash.


Fertilizer- A Sustainable Business

Fertilizers' role in food production may be well known, but the role the industry plays in sustainably meeting environmental, social, and economic demands may go unseen or unnoticed.  In this area, consumers may not recognize the industry's leadership in supporting and promoting agronomic research through universities and organizations such as the International Plant Nutrition Institute (www.ipni.net).

In order to demonstrate its commitment to sustainability, the industry has developed environmental, health, and safety management systems as a guide for implementing sound practices throughout the manufacturing process for fertilizers that pertain to air emissions and the treatment of wastes, as well as to water use and reclamation of land resources.  Fertilizer manufacturing and distribution employees are also educated and trained to measure and continually improve the performance of the industry's environmental systems.


Fertilizers are Safe

Scientific programs have recently been used to quantify the potential effects the use of fertilizers may have on human and environmental health.  Spearheaded by trade associations such as The Fertilizer Institute, the fertilizer industry recently sponsored a multi-year voluntary product testing program.  The results of this testing initiative show that, when used properly, the 25 fertilizer products that are most often used in agriculture are of little risk to fertilizer manufacturing employees and users, communities, or the environment.  The rigorous tests used in this program were designed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assess the potential harm to human and environmental health posed by commonly used products.  Fertilizer data was then compared against EPA and World Health Organization benchmarks for human and environmental health.


To learn more about fertilizer topics, visit www.fertilizer101.org