A little over fifty years ago, a 200 page book called The Limits to Growth was published, and the conclusion was that unless something was done, continued economic and population growth would deplete our resources and lead to global economic collapse around 2070. Around 1990, we predicted that greenhouse gases would turn our planet into something we would not like. So, what have we done? In an organized way, not much. One hazard with problem solving is that focusing on one aspect and fixing that often simply shifts it, and sometimes even makes it worse. Currently, we are obsessed with carbon dioxide, but all we appear to be doing is to complacently pat ourselves on the back because we shall be burning somewhat less Russian gas and oil in the future, oblivious to the fact that the substitute is likely to be coal.
One approach to mitigate global warming involves using biomass for carbon capture and storage (See Nature vol 609, p299 – 305). The authors here note that the adverse effects of climate change on crop yields may reduce the capacity of biomass to do this, as well as threaten food security. There are two approaches to overcoming the potential food shortage: increase agricultural land by using marginal land and cutting down forests, or increase nitrogen fertilizer. Now we see what “shifting the problem” means. If we use marginal land, we still have to increase the use of nitrogen fertilizer. This leads to the production of nitrous oxide gas, and these authors show the production of nitrous oxide would be roughly three times as effective as a greenhouse gas as the saving of carbon dioxide in their model. This is serious. All we have done is to generate a worse problem, to say nothing about the damage done to the environment. We have to leave some land for animals and wild plants.
There is a further issue: nitrogen fertiliser is currently made by reacting natural gas to make hydrogen, so for every tonne of fertilizer we will be making something like a tonne of CO2. Much the same happens if we make hydrogen from coal. Rather interestingly for such a paper, the authors concede they may have over-estimated the problems of food shortages on the grounds that new technology and practices may increase yields.
Suppose we make hydrogen by electrolysing water? Ammonia is currently made by heating nitrogen and hydrogen together at 200 times atmospheric pressure. This is by no means optimal, but higher pressures cost a lot more to construct, and there are increasing problems with corrosion, etc. Hydrogen made by electrolysis is also more expensive, in part because electricity is in demand for other purposes, and worse, electricity is also made at least in part by burning fossil fuels, and only a third of the energy is recovered as electricity. When considering a new use, it is important to not that the most adverse in terms of cost and effectiveness must be considered. Even if there are more friendly ways of getting electricity, you get favourable effects by doing nothing and turning off the adverse supply, so that must be assigned to your new use.
There is, however, an alternative in that electricity can directly reduce nitrogen to nitride in the presence of lithium, and if in the presence of a proton-donating substance (technically an acid, but not as you would probably recognize) you directly make ammonia, with no high pressure. So far, this is basically a laboratory curiosity because the yields and yield rates have been just too small, but there was a recent paper in Nature (vol 609, 722 – 727) which claims good increased efficiency. Since the authors write, “We anticipate that these findings will guide the development of a robust, high-performance process for sustainable ammonia production.” They do not feel they are there yet, but it is encouraging that improvements are being made.
Ammonia would be a useful means of carrying hydrogen for transport uses, but nitrogen fertilizer is important for maintaining food production. So can we reduce the nitrous oxide production? Nitrous oxide is a simple decomposition product of ammonium nitrate, which is the usual fertilizer used, but could we use something else, such as urea? Enzymes do convert urea to ammonium nitrate, but slowly, and maybe more nitrogen would end up in the plants. Would it? We don’t know but we could try finding out. The alternative might be to put lime, or even crushed basalt with the fertilizer. The slightly alkaline nature of these materials would react in part with ammonium nitrate and make metal nitrate salts, which would still be good fertilizer, and ammonia, which hopefully could also be used by plants, but now the degradation to nitrous oxide would stop. Would it? We don’t know for sure, but simple chemistry strongly suggests it would. So does it hurt to do then research and find out? Or do we sit on our backsides and eventually wail when we cannot stop the disaster.