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Default As Food Crisis Looms, Key Research Remains Underfunded

Despite worldwide food shortages and falling farm production in the United States, little attention has been paid to a critical piece of the agricultural production web: Fertilizer.
Industrially produced fertilizer accounts for a huge increase in agricultural productivity over the last 30 years -- the so-called "green revolution" -- but its production consumes about 1.5 percent of all the energy used worldwide and produces a huge amount of planet-warming carbon dioxide along the way.
You'd think that would mean scientists would have an easy time getting funding for research into less energy- and carbon-intensive ways of fertilizing crops. You'd be wrong.
"The fact that I have a Nobel Prize doesn't keep me from losing my funding," said Richard Schrock, an MIT professor who won science's most prestigious prize in 2005. "The amount of money that is required is not available at this point."
More money could lead to a world-changing breakthrough. Schrock and David Tyler, of the University of Oregon, have been closing in, slowly but steadily, on new ways to get the air's nitrogen to react and transform into the ammonia that powers the global food system.
Schrock was able to use a molybdenum catalyst to take protons and electrons -- which would normally stick together to form hydrogen -- and instead produce ammonia. Now he's working on revisions of his process that include different forms of hydrogen.
Tyler, meanwhile, published a major paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in which he reduced nitrogen using hydrogen and an iron catalyst. Tyler said his team "had almost" created the right catalyst for converting hydrogen and nitrogen into ammonia. Some members of his team anticipate a major breakthrough as early as this year.
"There's an enzyme called nitrogenase, found in bacteria, that will make ammonia," Tyler said. "If nature can do it, you'd think scientists ought to be able to reproduce it."
So far, no dice.
If there was ever a field crying out for innovation, fertilizer is it. Most fertilizer production depends on a 99-year-old industrial method known as the Haber-Bosch process, which produces ammonia, the chemical precursor to nitrogen fertilizers. By one scientist's count, the 87 million tons of ammonia that are produced each year by this process feed 40 percent of the world's population (.pdf).
However, the energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process depends on using lots of natural gas, both as a source of hydrogen and for the power needed to cook the chemicals.
Given all the demand, natural gas prices have doubled since the mid-90s, and the price of ammonia has tripled. That's bad news for farmers, especially those in the developing world who already have limited ability to purchase fertilizers.
"Why are the Chinese using so much energy?" Tyler asks. "It's making ammonia plants."
Some environmental and organic farming groups contend that just "greening" the process of making ammonia isn't enough. They point to the problems that nitrogen-based fertilizers cause. Nitrogen gets into rivers, which carry the fertilizer to the coasts of developed countries. There, algae feast on the stuff and use all the available oxygen in the water. The result: dead zones off the coasts of countries that use the fertilizers. Other groups argue that heavy input of fertilizers encourages monoculture: planting huge tracts of single, high-yield plant species, a practice they say is bound to be environmentally destructive.
But given rising populations and rising food prices, the world might not be in an either/or situation: We could need new farming methods and new ways of making ammonia.
In a twist worthy of an Arthur C. Clarke novel, the global scale of the problem all comes down to the way that electrons arrange themselves around the nucleus of nitrogen atoms. A nitrogen atom has five electrons in its outer shell, so it has a tendency to share three electrons with another nitrogen atom to create a triple covalent bond, one of the strongest in nature.
Learning how to break that bond was a tremendous breakthrough for human technology -- all the more remarkable given that bacteria can do it with relative ease. But all of the world's nitrogen-fixing bacteria only produce about as much nitrogen as humans do now. With world population estimates continuing to grow, any process that aims to replace Haber-Bosch would need to be able to replace existing nitrogen production and then some, in order to meet the world's growing demands.
So while billions of dollars in venture capital are flowing in to cleantech companies that would only make small differences in the world's energy balance, research into new fertilizer tech is inexplicably underfunded.
"Something like this, the big guys would jump all over it," Tyler said, "assuming we could do it."


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