Nitrogen remains vital piece of fertilizer puzzle - TFI exec

19 November 2013 23:15  [Source: ICIS news]

TAMPA, Florida (ICIS)--Between 1930-2011, global nitrogen fertilizer use multiplied by 88 times as increasing crop production and a growing world population became more reliant on the nutrient to sustain human development, an executive with The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) said on Tuesday.

It was in the 1800s that the value of nitrogen to crops was first realised, and during the infancy of its usage it was sourced from manure and guano, said Harry Vroomen, TFI vice president of economic services during his presentation at the TFI 2013 Fertilizer Outlook and Technology Conference.

“It was demonstrated by many scientists, and their experiments left no doubt about nitrogen’s crucial role in crop protection,” Vroomen said.

Guano is excrement from birds or bats that is valued for its fertilizer properties. The term is thought to have originated in Peru to differentiate useless bird feces from the nutrient-rich droppings of sea birds. The value of guano was so highly regarded that the US Congress passed the Guano Islands Act in 1856 to protect the accessibility of the nutrient source.

“Guano became a very popular fertilizer,” Vroomen said. “Guano shipments from mainly Peru started in the 1840s.”

The next phase of nitrogen came about with the importation of Chilean nitrates in the 1840s. Later, amid the Industrial Revolution, the by-product of the coke-oven gases led to the discovery of ammonium sulphate.

Larger-scale production did not develop until the invention of the Haber-Bosch process, but that almost got derailed when producer BASF was not convinced of the viability of the revolutionary approach, Vroomen said.

“They basically said the company wasn’t interested. There were two main reasons: They didn’t believe there was enough catalyst, and they were concerned over the high pressure involved and didn’t think it could be scaled up to production,” Vroomen said. “Fortunately for all of us here, Carl Bosch was in the room, and he overruled them and said, 'I think we can do this.'”

Ammonia usage in the US was quite low until the end of World War II. In fact, in 1944 the US accounted for only 35% of the nitrogen used globally, Vroomen said.

“The US emerged from World War II with the strongest economy, and there was significant growth in ammonia production and the US becomes the largest global producer," the TFI vice president said. "Production in the US continued to grow, driven by demand and hybrid corn varieties and significant increases in nitrogen applications, especially in corn and wheat."

In 1979, China surpassed the US as the top nitrogen producer due to its expanding needs for crop production, and India surpassed the US in 1998 to become number two for much the same reasons as in China with its booming population.

Vroomen said that ammonia use peaked in the US in the early 1980s and has remained consistent while nitrogen applications, specifically urea, have increased.

In the US, corn is the major crop for the nutrient, having claimed 49% of applications, with wheat making up 13%, Vroomen said. In terms of nitrogen, 22% is applied as urea, with ammonia and nitrogen solutions like urea ammonium nitrate (UAN) each staking a 27% share.

“It took about 100 years for the US to go from 3,000 tons to 1m tons of nitrogen use,” Vroomen said. “Then in the next 25 years it was increased from 1m tons to a little over 10m tons, and that was due to the adoption of hybrid corn and the increase in application rates.”


By: Mark Milam



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