#10 Sustainable Fertilizer
Reducing hunger and pollution at the same time
Read time: 4 minutes
In this week’s issue you will learn about the issue with today’s synthetic fertilizer and some potential solutions: Sustainable Fertilizer
“By being more careful with fertilizer use, there is a real carbon-saving opportunity” - Mike Berners-Lee
Top Sustainable Fertilizer News 🗞️
Green fertilizers in Norway: Yara, one of the world’s largest fertilizer producers, is building a green hydrogen plant in Norway to produce green ammonia. Ammonia is the key element in fertilizer.
Pee as fertilizer: French startup Toopi Organics has raised over $5 million to turn human pee into fertilizer.
Let’s dive in 🧠
In order for plants to grow they need water, sunlight, many minerals, and especially NITROGEN.
They get nitrogen in a natural way, but in order to make plants grow even more and increase their yield we started adding nitrogen to them.
Most plants can’t make their own nitrogen; instead, they get it from ammonia in the soil.
For centuries we fertilized plants in a natural way, with manure or bird guano (poop), which contain a lot of ammonia. Guano is mostly obtained from small islands in Latin America like this one:
That wasn’t very scalable and in 1908 Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch figured out how to make ammonia in a factory by applying heat and pressure to hydrogen and nitrogen.
Thanks to them the global population grew massively. We could now get much more food from plants.
How we make fertilizer today is based on their invention. The issue is it’s quite polluting in several ways.
We need to burn natural gas to get hydrogen. Use fossil fuels to power the process to mix it with nitrogen. Transport the ammonia and the fertilizer around with fossil fuel powered vehicles. And finally, waste it when using it.
Sadly, over 50% of the fertilizer applied to plants never gets absorbed.
Instead it flows to the water and pollutes it or goes into the air in the form of nitrous oxide (N2O), which is extremely polluting.
Ammonia is the second most produced chemical in the world and about 80% of it is used to make fertilizer. Altogether fertilizer production is responsible for about 2.5% of global CO2 equivalent emissions.
The fertilizer issue has 2 parts:
The production and transportation of ammonia and thus fertilizer.
The waste and pollution of fertilizer when it’s applied.
The first issue can be solved by using renewable energy to power the process/transportation and green hydrogen instead of hydrogen from natural gas to produce ammonia.
The other issue is harder to fix.
We would need to have sensors monitoring the level of nitrogen plants get, so we reduce the waste. But that’s expensive and since fertilizer is so cheap farmers don’t mind wasting it.
Or we could find other ways to make plants absorb nitrogen more easily. That includes: taking care of the soil, modifying the crops, adding microbes that help naturally fix ammonia to the roots, using more natural fertilizers, etc.
Besides this, changing our diets would also make a huge impact since eating less meat would mean growing way less crops and thus using less fertilizer. But that’s a whole other issue.
Green Hydrogen: You can check all the cons about green hydrogen I covered in another issue of the newsletter.
Volume: It’s such a huge and well-established industry that changing it will require scaling sustainable solutions a lot.
Costs: Today’s fertilizer is cheap, especially in some parts of the world where sustainable alternatives would be too expensive. There needs to be some policy support until sustainable alternatives reach the right price.
Top Sustainable Fertilizer Companies 💰
There are many ways to produce sustainable fertilizer. Here’s a mix:
N2 Applied: Their units are installed in farms to convert livestock manure into sustainable fertilizer with air and electricity. The methane and nitrous oxide are trapped in the unit.
Pivot Bio: They make microbial nitrogen fertilizers. These microbes help plants absorb nitrogen that’s naturally present in the air, thus avoiding any type of greenhouse gas emissions.
CCm Technologies: They combine ammonia from waste water, captured carbon dioxide from industrial power generation, and organic residues to produce sustainable fertilizer.
❗Extreme knowledge area❗
If you think this wasn’t enough here are a few more links to dig deeper.
Fully detailed report: A 160 page report from the International Energy Agency on the sustainable nitrogen fertiliser production roadmap with lots of great numbers and graphs.
Fritz Haber’s story: Thanks to his contribution in fertilizers he saved billions of people from hunger but he also helped the Nazis kill millions through his discoveries.
That’s it for today, 1 climate tech topic in under 5 minutes.
Next week… Carbon Capture Storage! 🤯
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