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Nitrogen Makes Your Plants Green, Part 2: The Science of Better Growing

Scientists have learned how nitrogen affects plant growth. Scientists have learned how nitrogen affects plant growth.


Last week, Rosebud gave you a look into the importance of nitrogen in plant life and nutrition. This week, we will continue our journey into its use, but more importantly, how it is derived for use in fertilizers.

The contribution of readily available nitrogen from commercial fertilizers to the expansion of modern civilization and mass agriculture has very few parallels in the history of food cultivation. Agronomy experts estimate that anywhere from 30% to 60% of successful crop yields are the direct result of this easily dispersed nutrient. Given the structure of our current agriculture system, it would be impossible to feed the many millions of people in city centers and rural areas without it.

Nitrogen used in fertilizers is derived from its most populous source on earth, the atmosphere. In nature, nitrogen is fixed into the environment from lightening, animal waste, decomposing plants, bacteria, and root parasites through the nitrogen cycle. Because the demand for nitrogen in agriculture is so high, it is synthesized from the atmosphere through an industrial process.

Fertilizer companies are notorious for environmental mishaps and excessive pollutant violations.

Unfortunately for us, the story of synthetically produced fertilizers is not a happy one. Industrial nitrogen is directly linked to the oil and gas industry, particularly natural gas. Natural gas is filtered out of seabeds as well as from under dry land in order to fulfill one half of the equation necessary to produce ammonium. The top producers of fertilizers using natural gas are China, India, Russia, the US, Canada, and Trinidad and Tobago.

The method used to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere is called The Haber Process and was invented by Fritz Haber of Germany between 1913 and 1915. Hydrogen from natural gas is pressurized with nitrogen from dry air at 600 °C after being passed over four beds of iron catalysts. The end result is ammonia, which is either used as a stock for urea and anhydrous ammonium nitrate or diluted to make liquid fertilizer.

An additional source of nitrogen is from saltpeter, a mineral mined in Chile. Petroleum coke and gasified coal are also used in place of natural gas.

The problem with this technique is the discharge of millions of pounds of chemical waste and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and local water supplies as a by-product of the manufacturing process. Fertilizer companies are notorious for environmental mishaps and excessive pollutant violations.

America's top three fertilizer producers, CF Industries, Terra, and Agrium are well versed in industrial slip-ups. Agrium was fined US $750,000 in 2007 for environmental violations. CF was named the worst polluter in the country and has been exposed for failing to include health and safety information with several of its fertilizing chemicals. Terra ranks among the top ten percent of dirtiest industrial facilities in the US.

Cheap natural gas extraction that fuels the nitrogen industry is a problem in itself. When removed from the seafloor, disturbing underwater biospheres is unavoidable. When extracted on-land using fracking, a cocktail of 632 chemicals, some of which have yet to be disclosed, are injected into a wellbore with sand and water to create fractures necessary to reach the natural gas below.

Commercial fertilizers were not available to agriculture until the dawn of the industrial revolution. While Fritz Haber originally conceived his technique to use water as a source of hydrogen, natural gas and petroleum will undoubtedly continue to be the principal fuel behind nitrogen-based fertilizers until a cheaper alternative is found. If anything, a shift towards organic and responsibly mined sources of nitrogen is imperative in hydroponics. Without this change, hydroponics can no longer claim to be a true environmental alternative to soil-based methods.

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These radishes are able to grow thanks in part to nitrogen.
Last modified on Wednesday, 28 August 2013 16:36

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