Two recent studies present encouraging prospects for improvements in both the production and post-application stages of the fertiliser process.
The first study focused on developing a significantly less energy-intensive approach to fertiliser production than current practice – where nitrogen, water, carbon, and light can interact with a catalyst to produce ammonia at ambient temperature and pressure. The production of nitrogen-rich ammonia, an essential fertiliser in global food production, currently requires petroleum-based energy that can only be done at 100 or so large-scale facilities worldwide.
Reporting their findings in the Journal of the American Chemical Society Au (JACS Au), Associate Professor Marta Hatzell and fellow Georgia Tech researchers uncovered the potential role of carbon radical molecules in a low-energy ammonia production method. Photochemical reactions combining nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia offer potential as they harness solar energy instead of relying on fossil fuels, presenting a more decentralised method for ammonia production.
The second study, featured in ACS Energy Letters, addresses the opposite end of the fertiliser lifecycle. Up to 80 per cent of nitrogen in fertiliser is not absorbed by the plants it is applied to, often leading to groundwater pollution through runoff. Working together with Georgia Tech engineers and researchers, Hatzell developed a stable palladium-copper alloy that efficiently converts nitrates back into non-polluting nitrogen, which could then be used to create new ammonia fertiliser.
While significant work remains before these processes could be applied in a commercial setting, Hatzell noted that they’re now a step closer to a more sustainable cycle that can meet the needs of a growing global population.
"The idea is that maybe one day you could manufacture, capture, and recycle fertiliser on site," said Hatzell.
The two studies are also part of a broader effort led by Hatzell and others at Georgia Tech to reduce nitrogen pollution and create a circular nitrogen economy through capturing, recycling, and producing decarbonised nitrogen-based fertilisers. The next phase will involve figuring out how to put together all individual processes together to run wastewater treatment plants and agricultural sites.
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