Friday, February 4, 2011

The Art of Sustainable Phosphorous

You may have missed it during the recent NASA bacteria arsenic furore, but Phosphorus was an important character. NASAs claim that it had grown an organism by feeding it deadly arsenic struck to the very core of the phosphorous dependant DNA of every living organism.

Looking back, one could be forgiven that NASAs attempt at science was more symbolic art, hinting at the pending peak phosphorous that threatens not our way of life, but life its self.

Taking this Phosphorous art a step further the Sustainable Phosphorus Summit, which as part of communicating the importance of sustainable phosphorous use has fostered a collaboration between artists and scientists coining the Phosphorus, food and our future Science Art exhibition.

Prominent Decomposers | Gouache and ink on Paper | Molly Danielsson and Mathew Lippincott
Phosphorous is a hard working element. It is never found on its own, instead preferring the company of friends who it is able to chemically bond to. One of it's most important functions is the linking of base sugars in DNA and in the construction of cellular membranes of every living organism.

Such organisms, like those that decompose food are vital for natures natural recycling. In an ecosystem you can not keep producing products without recycling them, otherwise resources will be depleted. The above image, depicts just some of these prominent decomposers who rely on phosphorous for their basic survival.

Other works from Molly & Mathews collection emphasise the importance of phosphorous for bacteria to oxidize organic compounds during respiration, the current methods of re-using phosphorous, nitrogen in our environment, the sewer and composting systems for Portland and an introduction to the toilets of the world.

Efforts Of Science For Its Improvement | Mixed Media Collage on Paper | Patricia Sahertian
Patricia Sahertian collaborated with scientists Elizabeth Cook, Rebecca Hale and David Iwaniec to create a series of mixed media collage works that depict the life cycle of phosphorous from the mine to the farm, whilst emphasising our unsustainable use of it.

In coming up with concepts to explore, Patricia concentrated on researching the history of phosphorous and found fertiliser broachers and many articles from the New York Times dating back to the 1800s including a vintage Premium King Korn Stamp that she felt was particularly apt.

"I thought the King Korn stamp was very effective in conveying, not only the image of agriculture, but the exchange of money and the reciprocation of the gifts you get back when you ‘cash’ them in."
- Patricia Sahertian

Depleting | Monotype, Monoprint | Sarah Kriehn
Working with scientist Lara Reichmann, Sarah has developed a series of screen printed art works that emphasise the importance of Phosphorous in living organisms and the depleted resource it is becoming.

Her art work, Depleting above emphasises this final point of human intervention in the global phosphorous turnover. By increasing our mining of phosphorous in use for growing crops we are increasing the amount of phosphorous above ground. If this current practice of non recycling of phosphorous continues our reserves will surely be depleted.

Other works in Sarah's collection, P15 and Bone Tissue, enlighten the viewer to the key role that phosphorous plays in living organisms, particularly in the bones and in the mechanisms of individual cells.

Got Bones? Got Ca? Got P? | Cyanotype | Joshua White
Got Phosphorous? Like Sarah above, Joshua has touched on the little known fact that whilst calcium is important for bones, so is Phosphorus. In fact, next to calcium, Phosphorous is the most abundant mineral in the body, 85% of which ends up in the bones whilst the other 15% remains a vital nutrient for our softer tissues.

Joshua’s clever imagery forces us to ask ourselves if we have enough phosphorous. The answer to that question lies in our use of phosphorous and how we source it. With current estimates suggesting our phosphorous reserves may only last another 60 to 130 years, we may soon be answering that question with a definitive no.

Symbolism in art is a sign of creativity and problem solving and Joshua has this in spades. In Joshua’s image we can see the relative difference between the left and the right glasses.

"The glass with milk in the middle representing calcium is full, but the glass on the right with phosphorus is much lower, representing phosphorus depletion."
- Joshua White

Most striking of Joshua's work is the use of the Cyanotype process that produces images formed from applying an iron solution to a receptive surface. The Iron symbolises the bonding properties of Phosphorous evoking the depletion of phosphorous through similar chemical reactions.

Natural forests are able to keep the soil supplied with phosphorous through the natural decaying of leaves, sticks and trees on the forest floor. Our crops do not have these natural mechanisms and as such the soils must be topped up with phosphorous if we are to have our crops grow to their maximum potential.

However with our once poor nations beginning to pull themselves out of poverty, we face a much larger task of feeding what our current demand tells us. In the next 50 to 100 years our demand for food will sky rocket and with it our demand for phosphorous. Digging it out of the ground will soon become a dead end and thus Sustainable Phosphorous use is something we must accept as a certainty.

The Sustainable Phosphorous Art Event included 20 artists in total and just as many scientists working along side to ensure an adequate communication of the science of phosphorous.

The Arizona State University as part of the Sustainable P Initiative has an informative slide show on the importance of P.

For more information on the Sustainable P Summit download the PDF and ensure you take time to browse the Art gallery featuring all 20 artists.

1 comment:

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