For centuries humans have used minerals to improve soil health and fertility. And at the beginning of the 20th century human-made fertilizers using enormous amounts of energy led to a revolution in food production unlike anything ever seen.
But that growth in productivity came with a price in the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
Now, innovators are scrambling to find new ways to make fertilizer without burning fossil fuels or releasing tons of nitrogen into the atmosphere.
One company, Nitricity, has just raised $20 million dollars from investors like Lowercarbon Capital, Khosla Ventures, and My Climate Journey to try and remove greenhouse gas emissions from the fertilizer production process. The company's goal is to create a sustainable, distributed supply chain for the vital agricultural input.
Nitricity is tackling two of the problems associated with modern fertilizer use. The first is the energy needed to make it and the second, related, issue is the centralization of its production.
Moving nitrogen fertilizer from the massive plants where it's currently made to the places where it's needed is another huge source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Nitricity, by creating modular manufacturing facilities that use renewable energy to create plasma that is used in the nitrogen fertilizer production process, can put its equipment closer to the farming communities that will use it.
That would mean a reduction not just in the 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions that come from ammonia production (the first step in making fertilizer), but also in the emissions created by shipping ammonia around the world.
There's still one problem that Nitricty can't address, which is that farms should find alternatives to nitrogen fertilizer as quickly as possible.
Plants can't absorb all of the nitrogen farmers use to fertilize their fields, which means that it gets broken down into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that traps 300 times as much heat as carbon dioxide.
″This electrified technology provides fertilizer in a climate-smart nitrate form, designed for efficient application, allowing it to address greenhouse gas emissions beyond ammonia-based technologies,″ said Joshua McEnaney, president, CTO and co-founder at Nitricity, in a statement. ″This is an opportunity to attack not just the 1-2% of global GHG emissions in the production, but the additional 5% of GHG emissions in the application by mitigating nitrous oxide formation. We are pushing hard to scale up and implement this solution.″
Proven in commercial-scale farming operations through multiple functional pilots, including sub-surface fertigation of tomatoes in a collaboration with California State University Fresno’s Center for Irrigation Technology and the Water, Energy and Technology Center, Nitricity's management now thinks the company is easy for prime time.
The company can also work with solar developers experimenting with agrivoltaics to site its production plants at farms that are already installing solar power.
″Nitricity’s decentralized approach to manufacturing fertilizers using just air, water and renewables-based electricity was born out of a vision to completely transform a 100-year-old industry, and we are excited to be partnering with them,″ said Rajesh Swaminathan, partner at Khosla Ventures, a longtime investor in climate technologies.