WHAT IS FERTILIZER?

Fertilizer is any substance or material added to soil that promotes plant growth. There are many varieties of Nawóz na wzrost, and most contain nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). In fact, fertilizers sold in stores have an N-P-K ratio on their packaging. Fertilizers are applied all around the world to keep lawns green and to produce more crops in agricultural fields. Fertilizers can be divided into three groups:

  1. Mineral fertilizers (phosphorus and potash) are mined from the environment and crushed or chemically treated before being applied.
  2. Organic fertilizers (manure and compost) are made from animal feces, and plant or animal decomposed matter.
  3. Industrial fertilizers (ammonium phosphate, urea, ammonium nitrate) are produced industrially by humans through chemical reactions.

While organic and mineral fertilizers have been used to increase crop yields in agriculture for a long time, industrial fertilizers are a relatively new development. Even so, industrial fertilizers are the most widely used fertilizers today.

WHY DO WE NEED NITROGEN-CONTAINING FERTILIZERS?

Nitrogen is one of the elements, or nutrients, that all living things (microorganisms, plants, and animals) need to grow. Although, there is a lot of nitrogen all around us (~78% of the air we breathe), most of the nitrogen on Earth is present as a colorless and odorless gas, called nitrogen gas (N2). Unfortunately, plants and animals cannot directly use nitrogen gas. As humans, we get our nitrogen from the food we eat. High protein foods like meat, fish, nuts, or beans are high in nitrogen. Plants get their nitrogen from the soil and nitrogen is the most common nutrient to limit plant growth. There are two ways nitrogen gas is naturally transformed or “fixed” into nitrogen-containing compounds that can end up in soil, without human intervention:

  1. Lightning: Lightning strikes generate enough energy to split nitrogen gas in the atmosphere creating nitrogen-containing compounds, which end up in soil.
  2. Biological nitrogen fixation: Some microorganisms can use nitrogen gas directly as a nutrient. These specialized microorganisms convert nitrogen gas to ammonium (NH4+) and are called “nitrogen fixers.” Some nitrogen-fixing microorganisms live in soil, and some can form a close relationship with the roots of certain plants, like beans or clover.

However, even with all this natural nitrogen fixatixation

HOW ARE NITROGEN-CONTAINING INDUSTRIAL FERTILIZERS PRODUCED?

As mentioned, most nitrogen on Earth is present as nitrogen gas, which is unusable for plants and animals. In the early 1900’s, scientists discovered how to transform nitrogen gas from the atmosphere into nitrogen-containing compounds that could be used to fertilize soils. This industrial fixation is called the Haber-Bosch process

This industrial fixation of nitrogen is performed in chemical laboratories and large factories all over the world. The Haber-Bosch process requires that nitrogen gas be mixed with hydrogen gas (H2) and put under enormous pressure (200 times atmospheric pressure). This is the pressure you would feel if you dove 2,000 meters (~6,500 feet) underneath the sea, which is a longer distance than 6 Eiffel Towers stacked on top of one another! This pressurized gas mixture is then heated to very high temperatures (450°C/842°F). Sustaining these high pressures and temperatures requires a huge amount of energy. The Haber-Bosch process is estimated to consume 1–2% of the world’s energy supply each year.

WHY DO WE USE SO MUCH NITROGEN-CONTAINING INDUSTRIAL FERTILIZER?

The short answer is that nitrogen-containing fertilizers help crop plants grow faster and helps to produce more crops. This allows agricultural land to be used more efficiently because fertilized land produces more food. In fact, the invention of industrial fertilizers is one of the main reasons the Earth’s population has grown so quickly in the last 60–70 years. Before the widespread use of industrial fertilizers in the 1960’s, it took ~123 years for the Earth’s population to double from 1 to 2 billion (1804–1927). However, it only took ~45 years (1974–2019) for the Earth’s population to double from 4 to 8 billion. Now, we are so dependent on nitrogen fertilization that we would only be able to produce enough food to feed ~50% of the world’s population without it.

WHERE DOES THE NITROGEN FROM NITROGEN-CONTAINING FERTILIZER END UP?

The crops take it up of course! Unfortunately, that is not the end of the story. For a more detailed look at all the reactions in the nitrogen cycle, you should read this Young Minds Article: “What is the Nitrogen Cycle and Why is it Key to Life”. In an average agricultural field, only ~50% of the nitrogen from fertilizers is used by crops. So, while fertilizers make crops grow better and faster, half of the fixed nitrogen we add is lost. Imagine that—we lose the equivalent of 12 million nitrogen elephants (~165 billion pounds) every year! The lost nitrogen can end up in the atmosphere or it can be washed out of the soil and end up in waterways, such as groundwater, streams, lakes, rivers, and oceans. This lost nitrogen causes a variety of environmental problem

WHAT ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS DO NITROGEN-CONTAINING FERTILIZERS CAUSE?

Some soil microorganisms can transform nitrogen provided in fertilizers into nitrogen-containing gases, which get released into the atmosphere like the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O). Greenhouse gases

In waterways, the addition of external nutrients (like excess nitrogen) is called eutrophication

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While we need nitrogen from fertilizers in our agricultural soils, we do not need or want additional nitrogen in our atmosphere or waterways. This means we have to balance the positive benefits of nitrogen fertilization (more food) with the negative consequences of excess fertilizer (environmental problems). Scientists are currently working to find this balance to improve our current situation.

WHAT FERTILIZER RELATED RESEARCH IS CURRENTLY BEING DONE?

One main goal of fertilizer related research is to decrease the amount of industrially fixed nitrogen that is lost (~12 million elephants worth) to the atmosphere and waterways. This solution is called improving the nitrogen use efficiency of agricultural environments. Here are a few examples of ongoing fertilizer research:

Microbiologists and soil scientists are working on ways to improve field conditions to promote the growth of naturally occurring soil nitrogen-fixing bacteria. In addition, they are also working on ways to prevent the growth of soil microorganisms that contribute to fixed nitrogen being lost to the atmosphere or waterways. Together, this would reduce the overall amount of nitrogen-containing fertilizer needed to get the same crop yield.

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