Eco-friendly fertilizers can make a considerable impact on reducing emissions worldwide. Currently, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers contribute to 4.1% of greenhouse gas emissions in the form of nitrous oxide, which is released when fertilizer is added to the soil. This 4% does not account for the production or transportation of the fertilizer.
Most nitrogen fertilizers are produced as ammonia in factories and then shipped to farms, both domestically and internationally. In the United States, there are only 35 factories, many of which are powered by coal and natural gas. The ammonia is then transported from those factories across the country.
Alternatives to synthetic fertilizers have been around for a while, but the war in Ukraine has recently made these alternatives more lucrative. Ammonia prices have tripled since 2020, and many farmers are looking for cheaper – and greener – solutions. Here are three companies that are changing the game.
Nitricity is a San Francisco-based start-up that enables farmers to manufacture their own nitrogen-based fertilizer using air, water, and electricity from solar panels. They are a team of PhDs and post-doctorates from Stanford with the mission of decarbonizing the production and transportation of nitrogen fertilizer.
According to co-founder and CEO Nicolas Pinkowski, their invention was inspired by a process that occurs naturally. “When you see a lightning storm pass through an area, the next day you will notice that the plants will be really green – and that’s because lightning breaks down the nitrogen in the air, and rainwater brings it to the soil as nitrate. This is natural fertilizer.”
In addition to providing solar-sourced fertilizer, Nitricity also cuts down on emissions from transporting fertilizer from factory to farm. Nitricity’s production unit is installed on the farm, and the fertilizer is added to existing irrigation systems. This reduces the carbon footprint involved in transportation, while giving farmers the ability to track and control their nitrogen fertilizer consumption as needed.
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Nutrien, one of the world’s largest producers of ammonia, has made a commitment to reduce its greenhouse emissions by 30% by 2030. To do this, Nutrien is adapting its current facilities to be more efficient and to mitigate the release of nitrous oxide that occurs during ammonia production. At the same time, Nutrien is investing in factories that are powered by wind and solar. These projects are estimated to cost a total of $500 to $700 million.
Nutrien is focused on mitigation, and its investments in eco-friendly fertilizers will surely have a large and positive impact; however, its current model for producing synthetic nitrogen fertilizers will largely remain unchanged.
Lastly, Pivot Bio showed an increase in yield per acre by applying living microbes to plant roots. The microbes feed off waste that the crops produce naturally and, in return, break down nitrogen from the air into ammonia, which can be used by the plant.
This solution has a couple of benefits that differentiate it from synthetic fertilizers. First, the microbes are created through a fermentation process. Similar to producing alcohol or sourdough, the microbes are fed with sugars until they mature and are ready for distribution. Pivot Bio boasts that this process produces 98% less greenhouse gas emissions than the Haber-Bosch process that is used to create synthetic nitrogen.
Furthermore, while synthetic nitrogen fertilizer can be absorbed into the atmosphere or washed away by heavy rains, Pivot Bio’s microbes remain firmly secured to plants’ roots. The ammonia produced is local and quickly absorbed by plants. It is also a replenishable resource as the microbes continuously produce ammonia.
Making the Leap
These three companies present eco-friendly alternatives to the traditional fertilizer market. While the war in Ukraine has created an impetus for farmers to switch to fertilizers that are not produced from natural gas, many still rely on traditional methods. In order for farmers to make the leap, they will require proof that the alternatives will yield a productive crop. As more research begins to support the effectiveness of eco-friendly fertilizers, more farmers and ranchers will expand their trust in the innovation of the private-sector.
Luke Brennan is a writer and software developer originally from Pittsburgh.