Monday, February 1, 2010

Global Nitrogen Problem

This month’s scientific American is carrying an article on nitrogen fertilizer.  It describes the well known problems associated with our present methodology.

We sow our soils with soluble salts that provide a sufficiency of the necessary nutrient but also flood the same soil with an unutilized surplus beyond the reach of the crop.  We try to minimize the wastage but the article makes clear just how poorly we are doing.

Once again, I emphasize the oncoming importance of biochar in remediating this whole problem.  The authors make no mention of this, suggesting that as usual it is continuing to be poorly understood.

Recall elemental carbon will grab free ions in the soil and prevent their removal until plants arrive to extract the ions.  This simple trick appears to largely eliminate the excessive use of fertilizer.

Interest in the method has gotten plenty of mention but still is a long way from been main stream.  The present situation is restrained by a lack of methodology for industrial farmers who most need the fix.  I will be addressing that shortly.

Fixing the Global Nitrogen Problem( Preview )

Humanity depends on nitrogen to fertilize croplands, but growing global use is damaging the environment and threatening human health. How can we chart a more sustainable path?

Key Concepts

Nitrogen pollution from smokestacks, tailpipes and heavily fertilized croplands creates a  host of challenges for the environment and human health.

Such ills are mounting as some countries burn more fossil fuels and pursue fertilizer-intensive endeavors, such as bio fuels production.

Synthetic fertilizer remains indispensable for meeting global food demands, but the world can—and should—do more with less.

Billions of people today owe their lives to a single discovery now a century old. In 1909 German chemist Fritz Haber of the University of Karlsruhe figured out a way to transform nitrogen gas—which is abundant in the atmosphere but nonreactive and thus unavailable to most living organisms—into ammonia, the active ingredient in synthetic fertilizer. The world’s ability to grow food exploded 20 years later, when fellow German scientist Carl Bosch developed a scheme for implementing Haber’s idea on an industrial scale.
Over the ensuing decades new factories transformed ton after ton of industrial ammonia into fertilizer, and today the Haber-Bosch invention commands wide respect as one of the most significant boons to public health in human history. As a pillar of the green revolution, synthetic fertilizer enabled farmers to transform infertile lands into fertile fields and to grow crop after crop in the same soil without waiting for nutrients to regenerate naturally. As a result, global population skyrocketed from 1.6 billion to six billion in the 20th century.

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