Introduction: Phosphate as an Essential Mineral
“The story of phosphorus is a long, fascinating one. But we are here interested primarily in knowing about its role in agriculture,” wrote Vincent Sauchelli in a “Manual on Phosphates in Agriculture” published in 1942.
“Therefore in order to start at the beginning or our story we shall have to go back to the year 1840 – the year when Justus von Liebig, a German scientist, made an historical address before the British Association of Science in which he for the first time gave a clear, intelligent exposition of the role of minerals in plant growth and laid the ground work for modern agricultural science. He was the first to show that insoluble phosphates such as bone could be made to release their phosphorus in a form more quickly accessible to growing plants if they were caused to react with sulfuric acid. That suggestion stimulated John Bennett Lawes, an Englishman, to treat coprolites, a phosphorus bearing ore fairly abundant in Great Britain, with sulfuric acid and to test the resultant phosphate as a plant nutrient. In 1842 Lawes was given a patent on this idea, which permitted him to establish the first ‘superphosphate’ works. From then on is fertilizer history.