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The explosion in population in the nineteenth century that followed the Industrial Revolution in England stimulated research into ways to increase agricultural production. This research ultimately gave birth to the modern chemical fertiliser industry. Similarly, rapid population increases along with a rising standard of living in the world were clearly the causes of the rapid expansion and globalization of the fertiliser industry in the post-World War II period. In 2010, fertiliser consumption in the world increased by 10% over the depressed levels experienced in 2008 and 2009 reaching a total of 169.7 million tonnes of nutrients. According to a recent report prepared by the Agriculture Committee of the International Fertiliser Association (IFA), global demand for fertilisers is expected to grow at an average rate of 2.4% per year through 2015 and will then approach a total of 190 million tonnes of nutrients. Phosphate fertilisers account for approximately 90% of the total world consumption of phosphates.

The phosphorous in phosphate rock is generally found in some form of tri-calcium phosphate in combination with other minerals. Tricalcium phosphate is very insoluble in water. In order to be available to plants, which adsorb nutrients dissolved in water through their roots, the tri-calcium phosphate must be converted to a water-soluble compound. By far the most common method of converting the tri-calcium phosphate in phosphate rock into water-soluble phosphate fertilisers is through the production of phosphoric acid by the Wet Acid Process (WAP). The only raw materials required to make phosphoric acid by the WAP are sulphur and phosphate rock. Ammonia would also be required as a raw material if an ammonium phosphate is the desired final fertiliser product.

Total phosphate fertiliser consumption reached a total of 39.9 million tonnes of P2O5 in 2010. The recent study of world phosphate demand by the Agricultural Committee of the International Fertiliser Association (IFA) in Paris predicts that total phosphate fertiliser demand will grow at a rate of 2.5 % annually for the next five years. By 2015, consumption of phosphate in fertilisers is anticipated to reach a total of 44.9 million tonnes of P2O5.

Based on projected growth in demand for phosphate fertilisers between 2010 and 2015, rock production capacity will have to be increased some 26% from 203 million tonnes to 256 million tonnes by 2015. This growth in capacity will come chiefly from new mines and the expansion of existing mines in Africa, China and Latin America.

World phosphate rock production rose from about 168.3 million tonnes in 2006 to approximately 182.1 million tonnes of rock product in 2010. Production in 2010 represented an increase of some 16% over production in 2009. China, Morocco, the U.S. and Jordan are the most important producers of rock although significant rock production exists in many other countries.

Phosphate has always been an important part of world fertiliser trade. Until the 1960’s phosphate rock was the principal phosphate material in international commerce. Today, ammoniated phosphates and merchant grade phosphoric acid are the most important and fastest growing elements of world phosphate trade. However, phosphate rock exports are now and will continue to remain an important segment of fertiliser trade.

Phosphate rock trade routes

Trade in phosphate rock is widespread with just about every region of the world relying to a greater or less extent on imports of phosphate rock to support its fertiliser production.

The U.S., one of the largest producers of phosphate rock and a pioneer in developing the international trade in rock after World War II, has now become the number 2 importer of rock as a result of declining grades and resources becoming depleted.

Trade in phosphate rock is expected to increase, especially with regard to exports to the U.S. The need to maintain production at the country’s major phosphate fertiliser production facilities in Florida and Louisiana coupled with the increasing difficulty in developing local phosphate reserves will necessarily result in an increasing reliance on a supply of rock from off shore. Imports by India and countries in Latin America will also most likely grow in the years ahead.