How humankind unleashed a fertiliser revolution

 

After a laboratory mishap involving a consumer drone, a malfunctioning smartphone app and an impressive puff of smoke, Annebelle and Phil wake up at the controls of a two-seater quadcopter, flying over a strange land. That land is the world in 2045.

Phil and I touched down in the drone parking zone at the Plant Science History Museum in the Netherlands.

It was an overcast morning with a lot of sky traffic above the canal-lined streets, so it took a while to dock and disembark.

Donning our VR headsets we strolled through the Museum’s interactive Nutrition Exhibit. It was fascinating to see how the food system had been transformed in a couple of decades or so. An AI-generated voice talked us through a virtual field of methane-free cows with bioengineered gut microbiomes [link to blog #2], and another of food plants intercropped with solar panels [link to blog #1].

Next, we selected to enter the Fertiliser Hub and that’s where we learned of the plant nutrition revolution.

The voice explained: Back in the 2020s – where Phil and I were until that sudden-but-serendipitous puff of smoke – agriculture was one of the world’s biggest GHG emitters. And something like 2% of global emissions came solely from fertiliser production.

Back then, ammonia fertiliser – critical to the nutrition of pretty much all plants – was produced using the Haber-Bosch process. It used lots of energy, often from fossil fuels, and emitted huge amounts of CO2. More sustainable approaches were long overdue.

There were a series of breakthroughs in the 2030s, the voice continued. One used renewable energy to power the Haber-Bosch process; another switched to using ‘green hydrogen’ through electrolysis of water with electricity generated by renewable energy.  The latter approach soon became the mainstay of ammonia production.

But it wasn’t perfect; it was still only for large-scale production, meaning that the opportunity was concentrated in the hands of a few, primarily Western, players. Also, it wasn’t a completely net-zero way of producing ammonia; even renewable energy approaches had some emissions associated with them.

Fortunately, the next generation of innovations was already on the horizon. Electrochemical ammonia synthesis emerged as a frontrunner, using renewable energy and often needing just air and water. It helped decentralise fertiliser production away from large factories, bringing them closer to small farmers in the developing world. By the 2040s about half of ammonia fertiliser was coming from green, hydrogen-based Haber-Bosch production, the other half from a mixture of alternative systems.

It was a great achievement, but – as the AI voice on our headsets pointed out – there was one further frontier that tantalised scientists: What if ammonia fertiliser be produced without any energy inputs…at all?

Phil and glanced at each other in surprise. Say… what?

The voice continued: Zero energy requirements would allow for entirely off-grid ammonia production and easy access to fertilisers, even in the most remote areas of the world.

The key was something called photocatalysis.

Phil and I were captivated. In the 2020s, we’d heard preliminary chatter about using photocatalysts – substances that absorb light energy – to drive chemical reaction and produce ammonia. But it was little more than a fantasy back then. The voice explained that scientists used photocatalytic reactors – with artificial light or sunlight as the sole energy source – to react water with air and create – ping! – zero-emissions ammonia.

It sounded like alchemy, but it worked.

Not only that; photocatalysis quickly shifted global fertiliser production to what it is today: clean, green and completely off-grid. Food production ramped up too, especially in hard-to-reach areas of the developing world. Phil was so excited he nearly dropped his complimentary sample of Eternal Youth™ serum.

Photocatalysis was a game changer for countries like sunny Nigeria. Rather than spending vast amounts on imported fertiliser, it invested in localising production and soon became a world leader. Challenges like supply chain delays, inaccessibility and unaffordability vanished as photochemical ammonia reactors sprung up nationwide, supplying farms of all sizes.

But photocatalysis wasn’t for everyone. Countries like The Netherlands continued with centralised electrochemical and plasma-assisted ammonia production at larger scales. Even in the 2020s the country was struggling for space, with agriculture concentrated in smart greenhouses and urban farms. With the energy grid covering the entire country, it was more efficient to rely on forms of renewable energy other than the sun; after all, there’s not much of that here – even in 2045.

With Phil executing a very skillful quadcopter reverse hover, we rose up above the Museum, elated with what we’d learned. I set the dials for our next destination and hit “Go!”.

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See where else the quadcopter has taken Annebelle and Phil in their Journey to the future of food series:

Integrated crop, livestock and energy systems in Kenya – the view from 2045

Gene-edited bugs for less methane from livestock – Kenya’s transition to sustainable livestock

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