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Richard Schrock, MIT Technology Review
Why finding an elusive catalyst could have a surprising impact on energy consumption.
Molecular nitrogen (dinitrogen, N=N) makes up about 78 percent of the atmosphere. It is the most unreactive diatomic species known. Interestingly, however, nitrogen is required for all life; it is used to build proteins and DNA. Therefore, dinitrogen must be turned into a molecule that can be assimilated readily by plants. That molecule is ammonia, NH3.
Prior to World War I, the iron-catalyzed Haber-Bosch process for ammonia synthesis at high temperatures (350 to 550 °C) and pressures (150 to 350 atmospheres) from dinitrogen and dihydrogen (H2) was discovered. It is perhaps the most important industrial process ever developed and responsible for a dramatic increase in the population of the earth during the 20th century, because it supplies a reliable source of nitrogen for fertilizers. But because the Haber-Bosch process requires high temperatures and pressures, it consumes tremendous amounts of energy; it is estimated that as much as 1 percent of the world's total energy consumption is devoted to the process.
... Can we design catalysts that will be as efficient as natural nitrogenases? Possibly. Will the Haber-Bosch process ever be replaced by catalysts that do not operate at high pressures and temperatures? Unknown. Only time, money, and ingenuity will reveal the answer.
Richard R. Schrock, the Frederick G. Keyes Professor of Chemistry at MIT, won the 2005 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Fertile Imagination (text and video)
Sean Murphy, Landline, ABC (Australia)
ANNE KRUGER, PRESENTER: ... this past seven days has been designated Compost Week - an opportunity for the industry to really spread the word to agriculture.
You see, while its nutrient-building attributes are well-known fewer than five per cent of Australian farmers are using it.
Now, it's not just become a more cost-effective alternative to chemical fertilisers but a way of conveniently sequestering carbon down on the farm.
SEAN MURPHY, REPORTER: Australia is building a mountain of compost. In just 10 years the industry has grown from 80,000 tonnes produced annually to more than a million tonnes, and is worth half a billion dollars.
ERIC LOVE, COMPOST INDUSTRY: That's about 25 per cent of the available organic material in the waste stream, so we are basically 25 per cent into our market [life cycle].
... PETER CORNISH, UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN SYDNEY: It's high carbon but low in nutrients, and farmers when they buy fertiliser are buying nutrients, so if it's low in nutrients, it's low value, it's bulky, so that makes the nutrients expensive.
SEAN MURPHY: Peter Cornish is professor of agriculture at the University of Western Sydney and is part of a push by the compost industry to find new markets in agriculture.
PETER CORNISH: Most of our soils naturally are low in organic matter and with years of cultivation it's got much lower. And that's reduced their water-holding capacity, their capacity to retain nutrients.
And it's important for most farmers to start to rebuild that carbon. And in our climate and our production systems it's difficult to rebuild it without bringing it on to the farm, so that's one reason we are really interested in compost and making compost a more attractive option for farmers.
... TREVOR DAWSON, AGRONOMIST: In general we would put compost with lime, gypsum, soft-rock phosphate sometimes some magnesium-based products. Depends on the area and soil nutrient analysis.
But generally when you mix nutrients with humified compost the humus binds everything together and stops nutrients wanting to tie up with other nutrients, so nothing gets to go anywhere without humus saying so.
So when you combine them with humus and humus-based compost you find that you can use a lot less of those minerals and get the same balancing effect in the soils.
(11 May 2008)
EB contributor Andi Hazelwood writes:
Last week was "compost week" here in Australia, and Landline (the national rural news programme) just ran a story about compost. As the price for chemical fertilisers skyrockets market forces are slowly driving the ag industry to use compost which is great news.
There is an incorrect quote in the transcript, I believe the guy actually says
And there doesn't seem to be an understanding within Government that if we want to become the FOOD bowl of Asia, if we want to get where we want to be in the next 50 years, we have to return carbon to agricultural soils, and it's as simple as that.
Of course the soil is only one part of the equation- I can't imagine Australia will have enough water to become Asia's food bowl.
If you want to see composting making on an industrial scale, watch the videos of earthmoving equipment among piles of steaming compost. Definitely a positive development as Andi says. However, there's not much discussion on the microbial life in compost (its QUALITY), which is highly variable and one of the greatest benefits.
No Relief in Sight for High Fertilizer Prices
Chris Torres, Lancaster Farming (Pennsylvania)
... Across the board, the price of synthetic fertilizer has gone through the roof. Dealers are reporting farmers are paying double or even triple the amount they paid last year for the same amount of fertilizer.
Brian Fulmer, a corn and soybean farmer from Northhampton County, just got finished planting his soybeans this week. Liquid nitrogen, which he said he paid $175 a ton for last year, cost him $335 a ton this year.
He locked in starter fertilizer at $350 a ton, only to find out it had jumped to $700 a ton within a matter of weeks.
“In the last two years, fertilizer prices have doubled. I hope the commodity prices don’t go back down, because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Fulmer said.
The USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) index of fertilizer prices paid by farmers, which is derived from information from fertilizer dealers, has gone up nearly 200 percent since January of 2000.
Much of the increase has been within the last year.
What’s to blame? According to Penn State ag economist Jayson Harper, high fuel prices and increasing demand are the culprits.
“I wouldn’t be expecting any kind of price relief for the farmer anytime in the near future,” Harper said.
According to The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) based in Washington, D.C., worldwide demand for nitrogen is up 14 percent, while demand for phosphorus has increased by 12 percent and demand for potassium has jumped 17 percent.
(9 May 2008)
Related in The Australian: Price of fertiliser soars with food crisis.
PotashCorp's speech to shareholders (PDF)
William J. Doyle, PotashCorp
Good morning. Welcome to this annual meeting of PotashCorp shareholders. We appreciate this opportunity to discuss the performance and potential of your company – and to share our views on the global conditions that are shaping our industry.
... Our potash, phosphate and nitrogen are essential to growing healthy, nutritious crops and to maximizing yields. Today, we are the world’s largest fertilizer producer by capacity – and our efforts are increasingly important to global food production.
... The good news is that farmers have the ability to meet this everincreasing food demand – but it’s going to take time and a longterm commitment to intensive farming and proper fertilization. In the words of Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug, “This is a basic problem...without fertilizer, forget it. The game is over.”
(8 May 2008)
Bob Shaw (totoneila) writes at The Oil Drum:
I will refer you to a guy, who has nearly a billion buck$$$ riding on the postPeak outcome, and who probably has an army of statistical analysts and data-freaks equal to the skill level of our much admired TopTODer Stuart Staniford [42-page PDF Warning, but cool photos and charts.