Thursday, August 10, 2006

Sustainable Artifical Fertilizer

One of the knocks against using artificial fertilizer is that it requires fossil fuel energy in order to make it. I became curious, could artificial fertilizer be created in a sustainable manner?

I took a look at what it takes to make fertilizer. The main ingredient from an energy standpoint is ammonia which provides nitrogen in a form the plants can use. Currently the main ingredient for creating ammonia is natural gas. But the natural gas is used just as a way to create hydrogen. Hydrogen gas is then mixed with nitrogen gas to create ammonia.

As we all know from the hydrogen economy, hydrogen can be made in a sustainable fashion. You can use solar panels or wind mills to create electricity and then through electrolysis create hydrogen gas. So it is possible to create nitrogen fertilizer using solar or wind as your energy source. It is therefore possible to have sustainable artificial fertilizer. Maybe it would make a good product to sell at the gardening store for the environmentally conscious.

In the short run I don't think it makes a lot of sense to create fertilizer from these sources. Creating hydrogen from electrolysis is an inefficient process (and is a major reason why I am no fan of the hydrogen car). It makes more sense to use the electricity from solar and wind as, well, electricity. Using it to make hydrogen would then mean we would need more electricity from somewhere else, like, um, natural gas. So it would be better to just use the natural gas to create the hydrogen for now.

In the long run, when we have converted from fossil fuels to completely renewable resources then it makes sense. We could collect solar energy from deserts, turn that into electricity to create the hydrogen to create the fertilizer. We would be harnessing the sun's power in desolate areas to allow crops to grow better in fertile areas.

While I think we should use all the cow manure (and other organic sources) we can as fertilizer, I am skeptical that cow shit can scale to meet the fertilizer needs of the entire world. That is where the sustainable artificial fertilizer comes in.


Anonymous said...

This article helped me with my science fair project. I am very happy to say that i got an A+ on my project.

Fat Knowledge said...

Cool. Glad to hear it helped you out. Congrats on the A+.

Anonymous said...

The creation of hydrogen from water to create ammonia would eventual(it would take a long time) deplete the water supplies of Earth, so while for all intents and purposes it is sustainable, eventualy it would become impossible due to lack of water.

Fat Knowledge said...

I don't believe so. In chemistry class, we used to turn water into hydrogen and oxygen with electricity . And then we burned the hydrogen, which caused it to release that energy and rebond with the oxygen to create water again. Not sure how exactly the cycle would work with ammonia, but I believe the hydrogen would once again become water.

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