January 8, 2020
‘Most people are good’ and ‘The progress gang’: two new Dutch phenomena. Respectively, a brick of a book and a club of positive thinkers who preach the faith in progress, along the lines of ‘there are more positive things to say about this world and its future than you might think’.
Now, let’s take the bull by the horns: let’s look at the nitrogen issue. There has been a lot of commotion about nitrogen in this country lately. Nitrogen has become a loaded and sensitive issue. Construction projects are being put on-hold and farmers faced with production constraints. How is this possible? After all, nitrogen gas accounts for about 78% of our atmosphere. What harm can a little extra nitrogen do? The problem is that there is too much biologically-reactive nitrogen. This nitrogen originates from both chemical and biological processes from non-reactive nitrogen gas (which is the type of nitrogen present in the atmosphere). These processes release chemical compounds like ammonia and nitrate into the environment. A century ago, the presence of such nitrogen in many ecosystems was minimal. This allowed for the evolution of a rich and varied nature with lots of biodiversity. Besides, for a long time, nitrogen was a hindrance to food production.
However, this situation came to an end with the invention of the so-called Haber-Bosch process during World War I. The new process, which was developed under military pressure, allowed the inventors to produce ammonia as a raw material for explosives. But it was also used for the production of what came to be known as artificial fertilizer. This later launched the so-called Green Revolution in the 1960s in Asia. Scientists estimate that the existence of over 50% of the current world population can attributed to the availability food produced thanks to this reactive nitrogen. This fertilizer’s production now accounts for 2% of the world’s energy consumption. And when used in excessive amounts, it is harmful for the environment and, in particular, for biodiversity. Water included. And especially in coastal areas: our fisheries’ breeding grounds. Thus, all in all, the efficiency of artificial fertilizer in producing nutrients amounts to a meagre 16%. A big waste, one could say. Isn’t there a better way? There has to be, because system Earth is now pumped up with biologically-reactive nitrogen and nature doesn’t quite know how to handle it.
Now the pressing societal question is: How can we balance the fertilizer’s costs and the benefits? We could rely less on Haber-Bosch and more on nitrogen regeneration for the production of, for instance, high-quality Single Cell Protein (SCP). Wastewater treatment could be an important source for this. And how about giving ammonia a more prominent role as an energy carrier alongside pure hydrogen? Plenty of challenges. We could start with a more systematic and systemic approach to an efficient nitrogen chain, as an explicit societal goal. To me, this dovetails perfectly with an open, future-oriented discussion about the role of intensive agriculture. Who is responsible for what in the future? And who will pay for what? These are the key questions. Let us, as an ‘engineering gang’, demonstrate our leadership in this domain by addressing the challenge with a future-oriented innovation agenda.