By Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Health Sciences, American Military University
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a three-part series on the history of enhancing global food security.
In the late 19th century, British chemist Sir William Crookes and other scientists warned that unless crop yields were increased and sustained by nitrogen-based fertilizers, the anticipated exponential growth of the world’s population would soon outpace food production.
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German scientists Fritz Haber (1868-1934) and Carl Bosch (1874-1940) gained international acclaim for the development of ammonia fertilizer via nitrogen fixation for agricultural and industrial purposes, thus prolifically enhancing global food supplies.
Nitrogen comprises nearly 80% of air by volume, but is not usable by plants until “fixed” in a water-soluble compound such as ammonia or a nitrate.
Scientists Develop Process to Produce Ammonium Nitrate Needed to Increase Global Food Production
In 1905, Haber created the most extreme laboratory conditions yet achieved to produce the highly coveted but elusive ammonium nitrate via a combination of high temperature (400 to 500o C) and pressure (15 to 25 MPa, megapascal) to compensate for the extreme temperature. Haber was awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize in chemistry “For the Synthesis of Ammonia from its Elements.”
In 1910, Bosch developed energy- and cost-efficient industrial procedures for mass production of commercial nitrogenous fertilizers. He secured patents while working for the chemical company BASF. Bosch and Friedrich Bergius (1884-1949) shared the 1931 Nobel Prize “In Recognition of their Contribution to the Invention and Development of Chemical High Pressure Methods.”
After Haber combined atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen to produce ammonium nitrate, ammonia-based fertilizer synthesis via the Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixation process prolifically increased global food production. Thereafter, extensive fertilization greatly enhanced yield, global food security and human health. Extensive ammonia-based fertilization greatly enhanced food security and health, while averting predicted mass starvation in less-developed countries.
Food prices soon became dependent on fertilizer costs, with the U.S. rapidly becoming the main ammonia producer. So prevalent is contemporary ammonia manufacturing that an estimated 50% of nitrogen within the human body once passed through a fertilizer factory, and two out of every five humans would not be alive today without Haber-Bosch fertilizer synthesis.
Nitrogen, which is tasteless, odorless, and colorless, is considered the “engine of agriculture” because it helps feed the world. Corn, wheat, and rice are among the most nitrogen-hungry natural staples, with newly developed hybrid strains possibly requiring even more fertilizer. Although refined numerous times to enhance efficiency, the general procedures of the original Haber-Bosch process remain the same: natural gas desulfurization, catalytic steam reforming, carbon monoxide shift and removal, methanation and ammonia synthesis.
More than 90% of ammonia factories today utilize natural gas, a fossil fuel hydrocarbon consisting primarily of methane formed from extended decomposition of organic matter via intense heat and pressure beneath the earth’s surface.
Recurring costs of natural gas account for about 75% of manufacturing budgets, with agriculture currently consuming over 80% of the more than 200 million tons of ammonia synthesized annually. Currently, nearly 60% of natural gas produced in the U.S. is used in ammonia synthesis. In the event of a shortage of natural gas, high demand for gaseous hydrogen for all uses could rapidly raise ammonia prices.
Fluctuating anhydrous liquid ammonia prices are currently about $750 per ton, and have been recently increasing by about three percent per year. To enhance storage and transportation efficiency, about 80% of ammonia is converted to urea, a dense nitrate more stable at room temperature.
In the next article in this series, I will discuss the environmental health impacts of excessive cropland fertilization.
About the Author
Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D., received his B.S. from Colorado State University/Fort Collins, an MA from the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill, and a Ph.D. from the University of Utah/Salt Lake City and has been a faculty member in American Military University’s School of Health Sciences, Department of Sports and Health Sciences, since 2015. As a regular columnist in encyclopedias and popular magazines, Dr. Graetzer greatly enjoys helping bridge communication gaps between recent breakthroughs in biomedical knowledge, practical application of developing scientific theories, and societal well-being. Dr. Graetzer has obtained AMU funding to research the productive versus destructive uses of modern science as related to the development, production, and deployment of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Dr. Graetzer looks forward to collaborating with AMU military students to further investigate the numerous physical and mental stressors experienced by tactical athletes within variety of combat environments.
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