We have a strange relationship with phosphorus: on the one hand, we have a great need for it in our agriculture and we’re concerned about the finite nature of the resource. On the other hand, in a number of places there’s talk about too much phosphorus in the natural environment, which for instance causes annoying blue-green algal growth in our surface waters. Too little and too much at the same time: shouldn’t we be able to handle this more intelligently?
This is what Thilo Behrends of Utrecht University thought as well. As an earth scientist, he also immediately saw that the answer involved a major role for iron, and particularly for the iron generated by the drinking water utilities on account of its natural binding capacity. And a role could also be played by vivianite (an iron phosphate mineral), which the Dutch Water Authorities are studying and may be producing at a later date. Behrends formed a consortium of eight European institutes, with the objective of jointly researching the behaviour of these materials. In late 2018 he learned that the project had been granted almost €3 million by the European H2020 programme.
A large number of additional questions come to mind. How, for example, do natural systems work? How can we best use the iron to bind the phosphorus? Can we then separate them again? Can we use the iron in agriculture? And what role do bacteria play in making iron and phosphorus available as nutrients for plants? Some very smart minds will be tackling these and other questions over the next three to four years. The institutes will assign a total of eleven doctoral students to conduct the research. This represents decades of research capacity!
Utrecht University is playing a coordinating role in the project, which we will be calling ‘P-TRAP’. AquaMinerals is involved as a partner and participates in the thinking around the research questions. In addition, research will be conducted with and into the materials that the AquaMinerals participants generate, and will help us in the (further) development of applications. It could also involve research at the treatment installations of the participants themselves.
The project’s launch took place over a couple of intensive days during which all members of the consortium were present. The variety of first-rate knowledge, combined with the huge enthusiasm, have us all greatly looking forward to the research and, especially, to the results!