Physical, technical, and economic accessibility of resources and reserves need to be distinguished by grade: Application to the case of phosphorus

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The amount of phosphorus in the total environment is finite, yet recent estimates suggest that more than enough phosphate ore resources exist in the lithosphere to meet future increases in demand during the next century. Still, it remains unclear how the accessibility of this resource stock – which is heterogeneous in terms of grade and location – will change as currently accessible resources are utilized, as extraction and processing technologies develop, and as the relative economic costs vary. This study uses an economic framework, the World Trade Model with Rectangular Choice-of-Technology, to link estimates of known geological resources of various grades with the technically and economically accessible reserves. Using the most recent public data on phosphate ore stocks and mining and technological capacity, this study estimates that the ~ 400,000 teragrams (Tg) of known apatite ore (> 1% P2O5 content) equate to ~ 110,000 Tg when converted to potential reserves (~ 30% P2O5) using existing technologies, with over half of these remaining potential reserves converted from resources with grades below 20% P2O5. Corresponding global reserves are estimated at ~ 70,000 Tg using the Rectangular Choice-of-Technology model, but since any reserve estimate is contingent on the state of the world economy, a set of five illustrative scenarios are constructed to show how this estimate can vary between ~ 67,000 and ~ 98,000 Tg with only a small number of changes to the economic and technical parameters and variables. Calculating accessibility using consistent definitions for resources and reserves while distinguishing between grades not only creates a clearer picture of remaining non-renewable resources, but creates a framework that can be used to explore future geopolitical scenarios about ore availability, extraction technologies, supply networks, and global commodity prices.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)319-328
Number of pages10
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Jan 15 2017


  • Comparative advantage
  • Phosphorus
  • Reserves
  • Resource scarcity
  • Sustainability
  • Technological choice


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