How to Feed the World and Get a Nobel Prize: Invent an Efficient Small Scale Haber/Bosch Process

Nobel Medal[social_buttons]

Ok, I didn’t actually clear this challenge with the Nobel Committee, but I think we could convince them.  Nobels were awarded early in the 20th century when German scientists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch made the sequential advances that made it possible to make synthetic nitrogen fertilizer from the nitrogen gas that makes up ~80% of the atmosphere.  Without their contributions we could not have improved the lives of billions of people, and we could never have fed the increase in world population that has occurred since their work.  Of course that comes with the environmental issues I’ve been discussing in my previous posts.  I’m not forgetting that there are changes that need to be made in the way we farm to make nitrogen use more efficient and to prevent water pollution issues.

The Carbon Footprint of Fertilizer Issue

The other thing that would be good to address is the “carbon footprint” of running Haber-Bosch.  For every pound of ammonia that is synthesized, about 3.7 pounds of carbon dioxide is generated (mainly through the use of natural gas to generate hydrogen). That means to fertilize an acre of corn at 120 pounds of nitrogen, there are carbon dioxide emissions that are the equivalent of ~20 gallons of diesel. That works out to 1.59 billion gallon equivalents for just the US corn crop – some serious carbon emissions (I’ve already posted about why Organic fertilizers are not the solution here).

What This Invention Could Mean

Here is where our future Nobel Laureate comes in:  animal manure, municipal sewage, woody debris and other waste streams can be turned into energy through a variety of methods (anaerobic digestion for methane, pyrolysis for syngas or bio-oil, burning for electricity…).  What if you could use that energy to run the Haber-Bosch process?  Today the nitrogen fertilizer for the world is made in very large facilities that mostly use natural gas.  I’m sure you could never achieve comparable efficiency on a small scale, but the cost difference could be offset with something like carbon credits or some other form of subsidy.

What would be even better would to to invent a system that can run on a very small scale to take waste sources of various types and generate nitrogen fertilizer for subsistence farmers in Africa and elsewhere.  In this case, the system would also have to take the ammonia and turn it into something like urea (hey, chemists and engineers are very resourceful, right?)

I’m definitely not the first to suggest this, but I honestly don’t know whether this is feasible.  I usually try to blog about things I know more about, but I’m hoping that there are some chemical engineers or other specialists out there that can tell me if this is even something worth talking about.  Maybe you know one and could ask them.

So if you are someone knowledgeable about this tell me whether this makes sense.  Thanks!

You are welcome to comment of this site or write me at [email protected]

Nobel Medal image from Jonathunder

  1. Derek

    YES. Steve, you and I may not see eye-to-eye on some of your other posts, but this one I am in full agreement on.

    There is a website that does something along this line(offer ‘problems’ for innovators to suggest possible solutions to and eventually win a purse prize) called Innocentive. This ‘small-scale Haber/Bosch system’ is well worth throwing money at (and not just the possibility of getting voted for a Nobel).

    My two cents:

    The design should be as ‘low-tech’ as possible and lets try not to get locked into the ‘heat, beat and treat’ mentality fostered by industrialism; there may be solutions closer to biology than engineering.

    Though i know its not exactly what you are asking for, nitrogen fixation is mitigated by bacteria that live in the roots of legumes (as I’m sure you know). Remediation projects to ‘green’ areas of Africa and India through tree planting projects are showing some good results. So the ‘permiculture’ route might also be a solution (all be it slower than a purpose built Haber/Bosch type system).

  2. Amy

    As a farmer’s wife and someone with an undergrad in agriculture, I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog. You seem to understand that agriculture is a huge system. Rather than attack and offer simplistic solutions, you offer a more practical approach to improving sustainability within the system.

    As I continue to learn about the direct (and indirect) carbon footprint of growing our food, I often wonder about the amount of CO2 processed by corn and soybean plants. Do you know how many pounds of CO2 one corn plant (or an acre of corn at 33,000 population) can convert to oxygen during an average growing season? If not, any ideas where I may begin to look for this information?

    I appreciate the help and thanks for the posts!


  3. Steve Savage

    I’m really glad to hear from the farming community – I may work for the companies that sell things to farmers, but I really think it is all about the farmers themselves – the people to actually feed us.
    I’ll look into some sources on your question after dinner – thanks to farmers!

  4. Tom

    I also farm and enjoy reading your posts. Two years ago at No Till on the Plains Winter Conference I had the opportunity to listen to Duane Beck, no till researcher at Dakota Lakes research center, speak. He thought through very intense crop rotation and cover crops they could become carbon neutral within 10 years.

    Some interesting work taking place in Canada is cooling tractor exhaust and putting it in the soil while seeding. Much of the research was started at the farm level and universities have taken off with it. The last I heard the it is showing some good signs of reducing nitrogen needs, in addition to sulfur needs of the crop and some of the other micro nutrients. Sulfur deficiencies are starting to show up on soil tests.

  5. Steve Savage

    Tom, I’ve heard about the Dakota Lakes work. Very good stuff. They are also seeing high yields in dry years because of the improved water capture and storage characteristics of their improved soils.
    I had not heard of the tractor exhaust thing – interesting.

    The sulfur deficiency thing is real. Now that we have done a good job of getting sulfur out of the rain from coal, oil etc, many soils will now respond to a sulfur fertilization. There are some products coming out that combine sulfur with the phosphorus and the data I’ve seen suggests that this leads to at least a small yield increase in almost every case.

  6. Steve Savage

    Amy, back to your question. I have not seen an estimate of the total CO2 converted to oxygen by a corn crop, but I’m sure it is out there. The thing is that quite a bit of the carbon dioxide that the plant “fixes” ends up back in the atmosphere eventually. The corn plants respire like any living things, so particularly at night they are generating CO2 – thats part of why yields are lower in areas with hot nights. At the end of the season, much of the stover gets broken down by soil microbes so that the carbon is released as CO2.

    In a no-till system and particularly if no-till is combined with cover cropping, corn can be storing a net 0.5-1.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide per acre and can continue to build that for as long as 30 years. The trees on a farm do the same and 40% of US farms have at least 10% of their land in trees.

    The net carbon exchange thing is very well described in this paper


  7. Chris Watkins

    A couple of thoughts: small-scale would be perfect, but a much more efficient process on a large scale would also be great. Powering it via local waste (e.g. manure) doesn’t seem so critical to me, as long as that local waste is indeed used (e.g. biogas for domestic use – like this example.)

    In terms of the nitrogen cycle, another major issue is reuse the nitrogen that we currently dump in our waterways, or even burn, especially through animal and human waste. No such thing as waste! Like industrial ecology, only for every aspect of society… (what do we call that – societal ecology?)

    (Technically I’m a chemical engineer, but that’s a long time ago…)

  8. Steve Savage

    You have supplied some very interesting links. It is great to finally get some chemical engineering feedback on this. I’m also a scientist who has not been “at the bench” for some time, but that does not mean we can’t contribute from a scholarship point of view

  9. Chris Watkins

    No problem! If you’re able to give us some attention in the blog some time, that would be awesome. We’re mainly engineers and solution-seekers, so we’d love to have help on the marketing :-).

    I’m convinced that wikis (as well as blogs) are great places to develop these ideas. Blogs have more immediacy and help to engage; wikis can refine ideas over time and develop a clear focus and/or comprehensive coverage of a question.

  10. James

    Hi Steve,

    It seems to me the problem here is one of cheap hydrogen – something everyone and their brother is working on nowadays, as it could very well become our source of cheap energy for transportation as well as for home energy. Could it also be a solution to your issues described here?

    As a biologist, I have to admit a bias for algae. I studied it intensively as an undergraduate, and I hope one day to work with it again. While algae bioreactor designs are hit-and-miss, sometimes pie-in-the-sky fantasies, they seem to be the wave of the future. One of my favorite companies, Solazyme, has already begun bringing fuel derived from algae to selected consumers. As I understand it they are also working on producing hydrogen from algae in the future.

    I came across several cool links which I’ll share:



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *