June 14, 2024

Sowing the Seeds of Sustainability

Sowing the Seeds of Sustainability

Fertilizers play a pivotal role in optimizing crop productivity and meeting the escalating global food demand. By enriching soil with essential nutrients including nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), fertilizers serve as the cornerstone of agricultural efficiency.  

However, the indiscriminate use of fertilizers has raised concerns regarding food security and  Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. In response, governments and industry stakeholders are spearheading a transition towards sustainable fertilizers.  

Sustainable fertilizers are produced, utilized, and managed in a manner that minimizes adverse impact on the environment, human health, and natural resources. This holistic approach not only bolsters agricultural productivity but also promotes ecological balance and long-term sustainability. Furthermore, the adoption of sustainable farming practices also synergizes with the increasing utilization of renewable fuels, such as corn-based ethanol, ensuring low carbon footprint throughout the fuel's lifecycle.  

One of the primary focal points of this transition is the decarbonisation of nitrogenous fertilizers, which account for half of global fertilizer consumption. Ammonia is a key component in nitrogenous fertilizers, serving as a precursor for various fertilizer salts, such as ammonium sulfate and synthesis of nitrates or urea. The production of low carbon intensity ammonia allows the reduction in carbon footprint associated with fertilizer production and application.   

Nitrogenous Fertilizer Value Chain 


The synthesis of ammonia, known as the Haber-Bosch process, requires large energy input.  Ammonia production constitutes the largest source of direct emissions within the chemical industry.  In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates ammonia production contributes to approximately 450 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, making it a central focus for emissions reduction efforts. Therefore, attaining net-zero carbon emissions by the stipulated timeframes – be it 2050, 2060, or beyond – hinges on the decarbonization of ammonia production. This necessitates transformative shifts towards adopting low CI ammonia.  

Enter the concept of ‘ammonia colours’, each denoting a distinct pathway depending on the source of hydrogen. For instance, blue ammonia is synthesized through the conventional Haber-Bosch synthesis, however the carbon dioxide source is captured using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, effectively reducing the overall carbon footprint. In contrast, green ammonia is produced via the electrolysis of water to obtain hydrogen. While this pathway boasts great environmental benefits, it is reliant upon the availability and reliability of renewable power sources such as wind or solar. Another promising avenue is turquoise ammonia, produced through methane pyrolysis – a process that decomposes methane into hydrogen gas and solid carbon in the absence of oxygen.  

The integration of low carbon intensity ammonia into the production of ammonium fertilizer marks a significant step toward a more sustainable and ecologically responsible approach across the fertilizer value chain. By reducing scope 1 and scope 2 emissions, this shift not only enhances environmental stewardship but also underscores the industry’s commitment to mitigating climate change.  


Phosphorus and potassium fertilizers 

Aside from nitrogenous fertilizers, sustainable practices are increasingly being incorporated into the entire lifecycle of phosphorus and potassium mining, crucial for phosphate and potassium fertilizer production. These resources are finite and their extraction energy intensive, with significant carbon emissions. Additionally, phosphate rock extraction yields large quantities of phosphogypsum, posing disposal challenges due to its radioactivity and toxicity. To enhance fertilizer sustainability, best practices including pollutant capture, land reclamation, and renewable energy integration are imperative. Efforts towards a circular economy involve recovering nutrients from wastewater or biomass, while research explores innovative renewable P and K resources like advanced algal systems and improved bone meal adsorption. 


Key Takeaways 

The fertilizer industry plays a critical role in enabling global decarbonization and sustainability transition. Achieving net-zero targets within mandated timelines presents a multifaceted challenge. Currently, no single pathway guarantees success, necessitating a comprehensive approach.  

Phosphorus and potassium reserves are geographically concentrated, with energy intensive extraction . However, nitrogenous fertilizer production presents substantial sustainability opportunities. Economic and technological challenges may hinder the widespread adoption of sustainable fertilizers. These include high production costs using renewable sources, the scalability and efficiency of emerging technologies and competition for sustainable feedstocks. Moving forward, advancement of sustainable fertilizer solutions requires a dual focus on reducing environmental footprint through improved production pathways and enhancing fertilizer use efficiency. 


Find out more...

NexantECA’s "Biorenewable Insights: Sustainable Fertilizers Report" conducts a comprehensive examination of sustainable fertilizer manufacturing, placing a primary emphasis on nitrogenous fertilizers. The report explores technological intricacies with a specific focus on integrated ammonia synthesis methods with hydrogen production and air separation.  


NexantECA also provides extensive coverage of economic considerations, specifically analyzing key regions such as the United States Gulf Coast, Brazil, China, and Western Europe, incorporating pertinent Q2 2023 pricing data. The study encompasses emission-reducing processes that extend beyond synthesis reactions, such as carbon capture and geological sequestration integral to ammonia processes utilizing fossil feedstocks. 


The Authors...

Xin Yi Chua, Analyst 

Julian Mok, Analyst 





About Us - NexantECA, the Energy and Chemicals Advisory company is the leading advisor to the energy, refining, and chemical industries. Our clientele ranges from major oil and chemical companies, governments, investors, and financial institutions to regulators, development agencies, and law firms. Using a combination of business and technical expertise, with deep and broad understanding of markets, technologies and economics, NexantECA provides solutions that our clients have relied upon for over 50 years.


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