Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: The New Tenets of Fertilizer Production
The first half of the 20th century witnessed major breakthroughs in fertilizer production with the invention of processes to produce Ammonia in 1909, Urea in 1922, and DAP (the most widely used phosphorus-based fertilizer) in 1959.
While these fertilizers have been crucial for feeding half of the global population, the world is currently facing a new set of environmental challenges.
Since the beginning of the 21st century the fertilizer industry has once again been focussing on innovation and embracing new technologies as it works hard to tackle the estimated 1% of GHG emissions caused by fertilizer production and reduce its environmental footprint.
The results have been impressive so far. Since 2004, IFA’s Energy Efficiency and CO2 Emissions benchmark has recorded a 14.5% reduction in CO2 emissions rate per tonne of ammonia among IFA members, due largely to investment in plant revamps and efficient new production facilities.
By pursuing other innovative technological solutions such as advances in catalytic processes, fertilizer producers have also been able reduce 63% of their N2O emissions since 2009.
Adopting and pioneering Best Available Technologies (BATs) has helped fertilizer producers become more efficient by reducing the consumption of raw materials and increasing their reuse and recycling.
Plants built today with the most advanced technologies use 30% less energy per tonne of ammonia produced compared to older facilities, while water consumption has also been significantly reduced. In India 46% less water is used to produce a tonne of urea in India today than 25 years ago, while in the US the amount of water used to produce one tonne of nitrogen fertilizer was reduced by 38% between 2013 and 2016, according to the US fertilizer association, TFI.
Today, fertilizers producers also recycle much of the water used during production. In Canada fertilizer companies that use solution mining committed to recycling up to 90% of the water used in their facilities, contributing to a reduction of up to 15% of groundwater withdrawals from 2005 to 2017.
Waste heat from production is also increasingly captured and converted into electricity using steam. In 2017, 51% of the energy used in fertilizer manufacturing in the US came from the capture of waste heat.
Despite excellent recent progress, the fertilizer industry is by no means resting on its laurels, however. IFA members are continuing to invest in a wide range of innovations to make fertilizer production more sustainable:
Opened last year in Texas, Yara’s first-of-its-type ammonia production facility is a joint venture with BASF that uses hydrogen industrial by-product from DOW as a feedstock, some of which would otherwise be rated, along with nitrogen from several air separation plants.
Through advanced purification techniques, IFA members such as Prayon are leading the way for phosphogysum (PG), a byproduct of phosphoric acid production, to be reused as a sulphur fertilizer and soil conditioner in agriculture, as well as for cement and plasterboard production, helping to use millions of tonnes per year of PG which would otherwise go to waste.
In the Netherlands, ICL is currently running plant scale trials to replace mined phosphates with phosphate recovered from meat and bone ash, sewage sludge ash and struvite. Yara, meanwhile, launched a program that recovers 12 to 15% of the total nitrogen that enters a large integrated municipal waste-water treatment plant in Oslo, Norway.
Fertilizer production facilities are also increasingly turning to renewable energy. OCP currently produces 70% of all their energy needs from renewable sources with three quarters of all of their mines entirely served by wind energy. By producing 40% of Morocco’s renewable energy, the company has avoided the equivalent of 2 million tonnes of CO2 emissions annually.
Many IFA members are also actively working towards removing carbon from the production of ammonia by using renewable energy. With a number of pilot projects currently in operation focusing on electrolyzers, and next-generation technologies being developed, carbon-neutral nitrogen fertilizers produced from “green ammonia” could be in commercial production within the next decade.
With considerable savings already achieved and a range of innovative new techniques and technologies being developed, the fertilizer industry is investing heavily to ensure highly efficient fertilizer production that can sustainbly feed all 9.7 billion of us by 2050.