Innovation in Fertilizer Application

Technical and scientific advances have made the application of fertilizers more efficient in recent years, and have helped farmers maximize fertilizers' benefits while reducing risks of their over, under, or misuse. Innovation combined with Best Fertilizer Management Practices in the four areas of source, rate, time and place, have shown tremendous results in terms of yields and limited environmental impact.

However, not all farmers have access to cutting-edge technology, which is why innovation should not only be seen in terms of techonological advances, but also include agricultural practices that allow for a more precise application of inputs based on experience.

Precision Agriculture

Precision Agriculture embraces new emerging technologies that contribute to steer agricultural systems towards a high-efficiency, sustainable, energy friendly and input optimized model, that contributes to meet the food grain requirements of 480 million tonnes (Mt) by 2050 (Yadav and Singh 2000). These include:

  • Soil analysis technologies;
  • Soil testing technologies;
  • Soil Mapping through Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensors in airplanes, satellites and drones;
  • Decision support tools (DST);
  • Nutrient Status Monitors.

Precision Agriculture in developing countries or small-scale farms

“Soft” precision agricultural practices, based on experience, rather than statistical measurements are widespread: e.g. yield maps can be produced by recording the weight of crops harvested, treatment maps are implemented by workforce division. Below are some examples of precision agriculture practices carried our in developing countries and small-scale farms:

  • Digital tools: Examples include “IPNI’s Nutrient Expert”, a software introduced in several Asian countries to help crop advisors develop site-specific nutrient management based on the 4R principles.
  • Deep banding of fertilizer: i.e applying fertilizers a few centimetres below the surface, closer to the plants’ roots;
  • Split-applications: i.e. postponing the application of a portion of the fertilizer to a later time to ensure a longer fertilization period;
  • Microdosing techniques: This technique consists in applying small quantities of fertilizers, by using bottle caps, either during planting or 3 – 4 weeks after plant emergence.
  • Monitoring crops’ nutrient status: Simple tools like the Leaf Colour Chart indicate to farmers whether their crops are deficient in nitrogen.

Innovative fertilizer products

The fertilizer industry continuously develops fertilizer products that meet the range of site- and crop-specific conditions and that aim at improving nutrient management performance.

An increasing number of fertilizer products contains secondary macronutrients (S, Ca and Mg) and micronutrients (e.g. Zn and B) to address the increasing occurrence of deficiencies in these nutrients. Additives that can also improve nutrient use efficiency are more and more common, especially urease and nitrification inhibitors, chelating agents for micronutrients and, more recently, biostimulants.

Slow-release fertilizers and controlled-release fertilizers are widely used on turf, in nurseries but also in broad acre crops (e.g. in rice in Japan or maize in North America). Fully water-soluble or liquid fertilizers have also been designed for application through irrigation water (fertigation) and foliar treatments. Finally, biofertilizers (microorganisms) are increasingly being added to the portfolio of fertilizer companies.

Innovation in fertilizer production

Ammonia plants: Energy efficiency increased, CO2 emissions decreased

The source of nitrogen fertilizers is acheived through the synthesis of ammonia through the Haber-Bosch Process (which entails converting atmospheric nitrogen (N2) to ammonia (NH3) by a reaction with hydrogen (H2) using a metal catalyst under high temperatures and pressures). The bulk of the industry’s energy demand lies approximately at about 87% for the production of ammonia: To produce ammonia, plants rely on natural gas or other hydrocarbon feedstocks, such as coal. Consequently, the energy efficiency of ammonia production is key for reducing the overall industry’s GHG emissions.

  • Best Available Technology (BAT): Large gains have already been achieved in the last 30 years thanks to the adoption of BATs. Plants built today with the most advanced technologies use 30% less energy per tonne of ammonia produced compared to older plants; but older plants have also shown tremendous progress in cutting their energy requirements.
  • Carbon Capture and Reuse: The capture and re-use of CO2 emitted on plants, called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), has enabled production sites over the past years to reduce measurably their GHG emissions consistently over the past years. IFA members around the world have not only successfully started to capture over hundreds of thousands tonnes per year.
  • Advancements in catalytic processes proven to reduce Nitrous Oxide (N2O) emissions: N2O (nitrous oxide) is a byproduct from nitric acid production, which is critical for the production of nitrate fertilizers and for several other important industrial chemicals. Over recent years, nitric acid plants have developed a 75-80% N2O reduction potential by converting N2O into dinitrogen and water without any additional energy use.

Phosphate and potassium plants: From Waste to Value

Phosphate and potash companies have put into place various, locally adapted recycling measures of water or electricity:

  • Converting waste heat into steam for electricity: Potash facilities are increasingly converting the waste heat generated during potash production into steam, which is then converted through “cogeneration”, to produce electricity for their internal consumption.
  • Another method used to cut energy consumption, is the implementation of steam-heated bed dryers for potash granules, which contributes to cut energy consumption during the drying process.
  • Water re-use: Phosphate producers have developed programs to reuse 95% of the water previously used in transporting and processing phosphate ore by removing heavy metals and other impurities.

IFA Publications

Slow- and Controlled Release and Stabilized Fertilizers
Fertigation. A Tool for Efficient Fertilizer and Water Management