Transformation of the Phosphorous Industry

  • Electric FurnaceJust as the industry took a leap forward by changing raw materials from urine to bone meal and demand leapt with the invention of matches, in the last decade of the 19th century, process technology took another leap.  In 1867, Aubertin and Boblique were granted a patent disclosing a production method in which phosphate rock, sand and coke were ground together and heated strongly releasing phosphorous. In 1888, two patents (one by J.B. Readman and the other by T. Parker and A.E. Robinson) were filed that disclosed heating the mixture using an electric furnace. This remains one of the manufacturing methods in practice today.
  • Parker, Readman and Robinson formed the “Phosphorous Company in 1890 and built a plant close to Albright & Wilson.  George Albright described the process as one of “brutal simplicity” and Albright & Wilson neutralized this grave business threat by buying the company, its plant and patents and in 1893 built a new 200 tons per year plant.
  • Albright and Wilson quickly filed new patents in other countries and ventured into the North American market.  A new subsidiary, Oldbury Electro-Chemical Company was established in 1896 with a large new phosphorous plant utilizing cheap hydroelectric power from Niagara Falls. By 1914. Albright & Wislon was at its zenith and the world’s biggest phosphorous producer.  By 1918, the total capacity was 2700 tons per year.
  • By the end of the 19th century, US companies had started to emerge to preeminence. The emergence of the phosphorous and phosphate industry in the United States is linked less to phosphorous production and more to superphosphate, the fertilizer industry and bakery leavening agents.

Ref:  R. Gilmour – Phosphoric Acid, Purification, Uses, Technology & Economics  (Boca Raton, FL, CRC Press, 2014)

First Use of Phosphorous in Agriculture

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    Florida River-Pebble Phosphate Mining (C. D. Wright, The Phosphate Industry of the United States)

    The initial interest in manufacturing phosphoric acid for fertilizers probably stems from Justus Von Liebig’s significant book entitled Organic Chemistry in its Application to Agriculture and Physiology (1840). In this book, Liebig stated that the insoluble phosphate present in bones and mineral phosphate, through treatment with sulfuric acid, could be converted to a form that served as a nutrient to growing plants.

  • John Bennet Lawes was an English entrepreneur and agricultural scientist. He founded an experimental farm at Rothashed, where he developed a superphosphate that would mark the beginnings of the chemical fertilizer industry. About 1837 he began to experiment on the effects of various manures on plants growing in pots, and a year or two later the experiments were extended to crops in the field. One immediate consequence was that in 1842 he patented a manure formed by treating phosphates with sulfuric acid, and thus initiated the artificial manure industry.
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    Florida Land-Pebble Phosphate Mining (C. D. Wright, The Phosphate Industry of the United States)

    Superphosphates is the name given to a very simple fertilizer made by the action of phosphoric acid on phosphate rock as shown in the following equation:Ca3(PO4) + 2H2SO4 –> 2CaSO4 + Ca(H3PO4)2

  • The early demand for fertilizer in the US was driven by the depletion of nutrients through the intensive cultivation of cotton and tobacco in the Southern States.

Ref:  R. Gilmour – Phosphoric Acid, Purification, Uses, Technology & Economics  (Boca Raton, FL, CRC Press, 2014)

Phosphorous Deposits & Agriculture

  • As the demand for fertilizer was growing rapidly, the searches for sources of guano were
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    Florida Hard-Rock Phosphate Mining (C. D. Wright, The Phosphate Industry of the United States)

    becoming more extensive. The time was right for the establishment of the superphosphate industry in the United States based on phosphate rock.

  • The first American superphosphate plant was opened in 1850 by William T. Davison and T.S Chapell of Baltimore, MD.  Davison had founded Davison, Kettlewell & Co in 1832 as “grinders and acidulators of old bones and oyster shells” and was the first company in the US to use a sulfuric acid chamber.  Other early producers were based in Philadelphia.
  • Initially, superphosphate was not as attractive as guano because its manufacturing process required sulfuric acid, whose process technology was relatively undeveloped.
  • In the latter half of the 19th century phosphate rock deposits were discovered in South Carolina (1867), Florida (1888) and Tennessee (1896).
  • With the availability of phosphate rock, the phosphoric acid industry was set for rapid growth in the 20th century.
  • By 1900, total US fertilizer sales were 3,700,000 tons, far exceeding the rest of the world.
  • By the early 1920’s, 15 phosphate fertilizer companies were operating in the US.

Ref:  R. Gilmour – Phosphoric Acid, Purification, Uses, Technology & Economics  (Boca Raton, FL, CRC Press, 2014)

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Transformational Technology

No Phosphogypsum - Valuable Co-product Instead