Is nitrogen fixation (once again) “vital to the progress of civilized humanity”?
The world food supply has become dependent on synthetic fertilizer from ammonia, which comes from the Haber–Bosch process. This process consumes large amounts of fossil fuels and releases large amounts of greenhouse gases. The excessive use of synthetic fixed nitrogen fertilizers has led to severe environmental effects, but fixed nitrogen is essential to the sustainability of biofuels. Nitrogen fertilizers are also required for biotic carbon capture schemes like bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), afforestation, and soil carbon sequestration. Ammonia has been proposed as a non-carbon emitting alternative fuel that has many advantages over hydrogen. Organic agriculture and nitrogen recovery from waste streams may only partially reduce the demand for synthetic fixed nitrogen. Social solutions like population stabilization may be the best solution for the food supply problem, but ammonia is an enabling technology for alternative fuels and carbon sequestration. Alternative processes for nitrogen fixation are very early in development. This paper offers the viewpoint that alternative means of nitrogen fixation and the wise use of fixed nitrogen need to be developed quickly.
KeywordsAmmonia Nitrogen fixation Biofuels Food security Carbon sequestration Nitrogen cycle
The author would like to thank the Tan Yan Kee Foundation and the Gokongwei College of Engineering of De La Salle University for the grant of a professorial chair. Prof Raymond Tan is (once again) thanked for reviewing the manuscript and some very helpful advice.
- Bauermeister U, Wild A, Meier T (2009) Stickstoffabtrennung mit dem ANAStrip®-Verfahren System GNS. In: Schutte A (ed) Gärrestaufbereitung für eine pflanzenbauliche Nutzung –Stand und F + E-Bedarf. Fachagentur Nachwachsende Rohstoffee (FNR), Gülzow, Deutschland, pp 78–95Google Scholar
- Crookes W (1899) President’s address. In: Report of the 68th meeting of the British association for the advancement of Science, John Murray, London, pp. 3–38. http://www.archive.org/details/reportofbritisha99brit. Accessed 1 Apr 2014
- Davis ML (2011) Water and wastewater engineering: design principles and practice. McGraw-Hill, New YorkGoogle Scholar
- FAO (2013) AQUASTAT database - Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/data/query/index.html?lang=en Accessed 3 Apr 2014
- FAO (2014) FAOSTAT database - Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://faostat3.fao.org/faostat-gateway/go/to/download/R/RF/E Accessed 3 Apr 2014
- Hardin G (1968) The tragedy of the commons. Science 16:1243–1248Google Scholar
- Hess RJ, Foust TD, Hoskinson R, Thompson D (2003) Roadmap for agricultural biomass feedstock supply in the United States. 2003 Report DOE/NE-ID-11129 Rev. 1Google Scholar
- IFA (2009a) Feeding the earth: energy efficiency and CO2 emissions in ammonia production. International Fertilizer Industry Association, ParisGoogle Scholar
- IFA (2009b) Fertilizers, climate change and enhancing agricultural productivity sustainably. International Fertilizer Industry Association, ParisGoogle Scholar
- IFA (2014) Fertilizer Outlook 2014-2018. International Fertilizer Industry Association, ParisGoogle Scholar
- IFOAM (2005) Principles of organic agriculture preamble. International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, Bonn, Germany. www.ifoam.org/en/organic-landmarks/principles-organic-agriculture Accessed 3 Apr 2014
- Nowak B, Nesme T, David C, Pellerin S (2013) To what extent does organic farming rely on nutrient inflows from conventional farming? Environ Res Lett 8 doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/8/4/044045
- Olson N (2013) NH3 fuel — gaining momentum. Tenth Annual NH3 Fuel Conference, September 23, 2013. nh3fuelassociation.org/2013/09/16/nh3-fuel-gaining-momentum Accessed 3 Apr 2014Google Scholar
- Rockström J, Steffen W, Noone K, Persson A, Chapin FS III, Lambin E, Lenton TM, Scheffer M, Folke C, Schellnhuber HJ, Nykvist B, de Wit CA, Hughes T, van der Leeuw S, Rodhe H, Sörlin S, Snyder PK, Costanza R, Svedin U, Falkenmark M, Karlberg L, Corell RW, Fabry VJ, Hansen J, Walker B, Liverman D, Richardson K, Crutzen P, Foley J (2009) Planetary boundaries: exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecol Soc 14:32Google Scholar
- Smil V (2001) Enriching the earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the transformation of world food production. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
- Stockmann U, Adams MA, Crawford JW, Field DJ, Henakaarchchi N, Jenkins M, Minasnya B, McBratney AB, de de Remy Courcelles V, Singh K, Wheeler I, Abbott L, Angers DA, Baldock J, Bird M, Brookes PC, Chenu C, Jastrow JD, Lal R, Lehmann J, O’Donnell AG, Parton WJ, Whitehead D, Zimmermann M (2013) The knowns, known unknowns and unknowns of sequestration of soil organic carbon. Agric Ecosyst Environ 164:80–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar
- United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2013) World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables. Working Paper No. ESA/P/WP.227Google Scholar
- Wolfram|Alpha (2014) Wolfram Alpha LLC. www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=world+population+growth&lk=4 Accessed 30 Apr 2014