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Is nitrogen fixation (once again) “vital to the progress of civilized humanity”?

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgments

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.

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Correspondence to Luis F. Razon.

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Razon, L.F. Is nitrogen fixation (once again) “vital to the progress of civilized humanity”?. Clean Techn Environ Policy 17, 301–307 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10098-014-0835-3

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Keywords

  • Ammonia
  • Nitrogen fixation
  • Biofuels
  • Food security
  • Carbon sequestration
  • Nitrogen cycle