Limiting fertilizers’ environmental impact from the outset
The number of people who can be fed from the agricultural yield of one hectare has more than doubled from 1.9 to 4.3 over the past hundred years. Scientists attribute a significant part of this rise in efficiency to nitrogen-based mineral fertilizers, giving them a crucial role in achieving high harvest yields to guarantee food supply for a growing population.
While a large part of the world’s population is benefitting from the improved fertility of the agricultural land, the pros and cons of artificial fertilizers are subject to much discussion. One area often neglected when considering their environmental impact is the high energy use linked with fertilizer production. With fertilizer demand predicted to rise steadily by 2.3% per year, Clariant has stepped in with an energy-saving solution for producing a key source ingredient – ammonia – more efficiently.
Energy-intensive: yesterday’s story
Among all plant nutrients, nitrogen is known to yield the strongest harvest response. According to a 2014 forecast, more than half the global fertilizer demand is for nitrogen containing fertilizer.
Currently, around 80% of commercially manufactured ammonia is processed for nitrogenous fertilizers, predominantly ammonium nitrate and urea . The remaining 20% is used as a basic chemical in many aspects of everyday life – baking powder, pharmaceuticals, synthetic clothing fibers, tires and more. The Haber-Bosch process is still the most important process to produce ammonia on a large industrial scale, even 100 years on. However, the global energy consumption for the synthesis of ammonia equals approximately the annual energy consumption of all German households combined.
Clariant has developed an innovative and highly-active catalyst called AmoMax®-10 which, thanks to its special design compared to alternative catalysts, can deliver energy savings of up to 40% for the Haber-Bosch process. Based mainly on the iron oxide containing mineral wustite, AmoMax-10 has a shorter activation time and operates very efficiently at lower temperatures and less pressure. This ensures significantly reduced energy needs for the ammonia production. At the same time, the ammonia yield is optimized.
As a result the catalyst can enable future ammonia units to be designed smaller despite the same output, which would be a more cost-efficient way of delivering ammonia for the worldwide urgently required fertilizer.
40% energy savings: today’s story
AmoMax-10’s outstanding product performance is reflected in its growing market success. By 2014 more than 90 ammonia facilities worldwide were switched to this catalytic system and approximately 10 additional production plants are being added each year. The easy integration into existing production facilities with no additional investment costs is adding to its appeal.
Data shows the plants have been saving approximately 1,200 gigawatt hours annually, which equals the energy need of a city with 60,000 households. The consumption of fossil fuels and harmful emissions for the climate are reduced accordingly. These 1,200 hours also correspond to the same energy content of 120 million liters of heating oil or a saving of 726,000 tons of CO₂ equivalents – this is what a small car with an average fuel consumption of six liters per 100 kilometers would produce by driving a distance of a five billion kilometers. The vehicle could use these savings to circle the global almost 130,000 times.
»When supporting our population’s growing food needs through fertilizers, a balance must be found between ensuring the supply of nutrients to the soil and minimizing their environmental impact. Our energy-efficient solution is making a difference at the outset of their production.«
1 International Fertilizer Industry Association: Fertilizer Outlook 2013-2017
2 James N Galloway, Allan R Townsend, Jan Willem Erisman: Transformation of the Nitrogen Cycle: Recent Trends, Questions and Potential Solutions (16.05.2008) in Science, Volume 320 p. 889
3 Primärenergieverbrauch in Deutschland nach Energieträgern in den Jahren 2012 und 2013 (2014): Struktur des Endenergieverbrauchs Deutschland nach Sektoren in Jahren 2005 bis 2012 (2014)