Fertilizer is a substance added to soil to improve plants' growth and yield. First used by ancient farmers, fertilizer technology developed significantly as the chemical needs of growing plants were discovered. Modern synthetic fertilizers are composed mainly of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium compounds with secondary nutrients added. The use of synthetic fertilizers has significantly improved the quality and quantity of the food available today, although their long-term use is debated by environmentalists.
Like all living organisms, plants are made up of cells. Within these cells occur numerous metabolic chemical reactions that are responsible for growth and reproduction. Since plants do not eat food like animals, they depend on nutrients in the soil to provide the basic chemicals for these metabolic reactions. The supply of these components in soil is limited, however, and as plants are harvested, it dwindles, causing a reduction in the quality and yield of plants.
Fertilizers replace the chemical components that are taken from the soil by growing plants. However, they are also designed to improve the growing potential of soil, and fertilizers can create a better growing environment than natural soil. They can also be tailored to suit the type of crop that is being grown. Typically, fertilizers are composed of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium compounds. They also contain trace elements that improve the growth of plants.
The primary components in fertilizers are nutrients which are vital for plant growth. Plants use nitrogen in the synthesis of proteins, nucleic acids, and hormones. When plants are nitrogen deficient, they are marked by reduced growth and yellowing of leaves. Plants also need phosphorus, a component of nucleic acids, phospholipids, and several proteins. It is also necessary to provide the energy to drive metabolic chemical reactions. Without enough phosphorus, plant growth is reduced. Potassium is another major substance that plants get from the soil. It is used in protein synthesis and other key plant processes. Yellowing, spots of dead tissue, and weak stems and roots are all indicative of plants that lack enough potassium.
Calcium, magnesium, and sulfur are also important materials in plant growth. They are only included in fertilizers in small amounts, however, since most soils naturally contain enough of these components. Other materials are needed in relatively small amounts for plant growth. These micronutrients include iron, chlorine, copper, manganese, zinc, molybdenum, and boron, which primarily function as cofactors in enzymatic reactions. While they may be present in small amounts, these compounds are no less important to growth, and without them plants can die.
Many different substances are used to provide the essential nutrients needed for an effective fertilizer. These compounds can be mined or isolated from naturally occurring sources. Examples include sodium nitrate, seaweed, bones, guano, potash, and phosphate rock. Compounds can also be chemically synthesized from basic raw materials. These would include such things as ammonia, urea, nitric acid, and ammonium phosphate. Since these compounds exist in a number of physical states, fertilizers can be sold as solids, liquids, or slurries.
The process of adding substances to soil to improve its growing capacity was developed in the early days of agriculture. Ancient farmers knew that the first yields on a plot of land were much better than those of subsequent years. This caused them to move to new, uncultivated areas, which again showed the same pattern of reduced yields over time. Eventually it was discovered that plant growth on a plot of land could be improved by spreading animal manure throughout the soil.
Over time, fertilizer technology became more refined. New substances that improved the growth of plants were discovered. The Egyptians are known to have added ashes from burned weeds to soil. Ancient Greek and Roman writings indicate that various animal excrements were used, depending on the type of soil or plant grown. It was also known by this time that growing leguminous plants on plots prior to growing wheat was beneficial. Other types of materials added include sea-shells, clay, vegetable waste, waste from different manufacturing processes, and other assorted trash.
Organized research into fertilizer technology began in the early seventeenth century. Early scientists such as Francis Bacon and Johann Glauber describe the beneficial effects of the addition of saltpeter to soil. Glauber developed the first complete mineral fertilizer, which was a mixture of saltpeter, lime, phosphoric acid, nitrogen, and potash. As scientific chemical theories developed, the chemical needs of plants were discovered, which led to improved fertilizer compositions. Organic chemist Justus von Liebig demonstrated that plants need mineral elements such as nitrogen and phosphorous in order to grow. The chemical fertilizer industry could be said to have its beginnings with a patent issued to Sir John Lawes, which outlined a method for producing a form of phosphate that was an effective fertilizer. The synthetic fertilizer industry experienced significant growth after the First World War, when facilities that had produced ammonia and synthetic nitrates for explosives were converted to the production of nitrogen-based fertilizers.
The fertilizers outlined here are compound fertilizers composed of primary fertilizers and secondary nutrients. These represent only one type of fertilizer, and other single nutrient types are also made. The raw materials, in solid form, can be supplied to fertilizer manufacturers in bulk quantities of thousands of tons, drum quantities, or in metal drums and bag containers.
Primary fertilizers include substances derived from nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Various raw materials are used to produce these compounds. When ammonia is used as the nitrogen source in a fertilizer, one method of synthetic production requires the use of natural gas and air. The phosphorus component is made using sulfur, coal, and phosphate rock. The potassium source comes from potassium chloride, a primary component of potash.
Secondary nutrients are added to some fertilizers to help make them more effective. Calcium is obtained from limestone, which contains calcium carbonate, calcium sulphate, and calcium magnesium carbonate. The magnesium source in fertilizers is derived from dolomite. Sulfur is another material that is mined and added to fertilizers. Other mined materials include iron from ferrous sulfate, copper, and molybdenum from molybdenum oxide.
Fully integrated factories have been designed to produce compound fertilizers. Depending on the actual composition of the end product, the production process will differ from manufacturer to manufacturer.
Nitrogen fertilizer component
1 Ammonia is one nitrogen fertilizer component that can be synthesized
from in-expensive raw materials. Since nitrogen makes up a significant
portion of the earth's atmosphere, a process was developed to
produce ammonia from air. In this process,
- 2 While ammonia itself is sometimes used as a fertilizer, it is often converted to other substances for ease of handling. Nitric acid is produced by first mixing ammonia and air in a tank. In the presence of a catalyst, a reaction occurs which converts the ammonia to nitric oxide. The nitric oxide is further reacted in the presence of water to produce nitric acid.
3 Nitric acid and ammonia are used to make ammonium nitrate. This material is a good fertilizer component because it has a high concentration of nitrogen. The two materials are mixed together in a tank and a neutralization reaction occurs, producing ammonium nitrate. This material can then be stored until it is ready to be granulated and blended with the other fertilizer components.
Phosphorous fertilizer component
- 4 To isolate phosphorus from phosphate rock, it is treated with sulfuric acid, producing phosphoric acid. Some of this material is reacted further with sulfuric acid and nitric acid to produce a triple superphosphate, an excellent source of phosphorous in solid form.
- 5 Some of the phosphoric acid is also reacted with ammonia in a separate tank. This reaction results in ammonium phosphate, another good primary fertilizer.
Potassium fertilizer component
- 6 Potassium chloride is typically supplied to fertilizer manufacturers in bulk. The manufacturer converts it into a more usable form by granulating it. This makes it easier to mix with other fertilizer components in the next step.
Granulating and blending
- 7 To produce fertilizer in the most usable form, each of the different compounds, ammonium nitrate, potassium chloride, ammonium phosphate, and triple superphosphate are granulated and blended together. One method of granulation involves putting the solid materials into a rotating drum which has an inclined axis. As the drum rotates, pieces of the solid fertilizer take on small spherical shapes. They are passed through a screen that separates out adequately sized particles. A coating of inert dust is then applied to the particles, keeping each one discrete and inhibiting moisture retention. Finally, the particles are dried, completing the granulation process.
- 8 The different types of particles are blended together in appropriate proportions to produce a composite fertilizer. The blending is done in a large mixing drum that rotates a specific number of turns to produce the best mixture possible. After mixing, the fertilizer is emptied onto a conveyor belt, which transports it to the bagging machine.
- 9 Fertilizers are typically supplied to farmers in large bags. To fill these bags the fertilizer is first delivered into a large hopper. An appropriate amount is released from the hopper into a bag that is held open by a clamping device. The bag is on a vibrating surface, which allows better packing. When filling is complete, the bag is transported upright to a machine that seals it closed. The bag is then conveyored to a palletizer, which stacks multiple bags, readying them for shipment to distributors and eventually to farmers.
To ensure the quality of the fertilizer that is produced, manufacturers monitor the product at each stage of production. The raw materials and the finished products are all subjected to a battery of physical and chemical tests to show that they meet the specifications previously developed. Some of the characteristics that are tested include pH, appearance, density, and melting point. Since fertilizer production is governmentally regulated, composition analysis tests are run on samples to determine total nitrogen content, phosphate content, and other elements affecting the chemical composition. Various other tests are also performed, depending on the specific nature of the fertilizer composition.
A relatively small amount of the nitrogen contained in fertilizers applied to the soil is actually assimilated into the plants. Much is washed into surrounding bodies of water or filters into the groundwater. This has added significant amounts of nitrates to the water that is consumed by the public. Some medical studies have suggested that certain disorders of the urinary and kidney systems are a result of excessive nitrates in drinking water. It is also thought that this is particularly harmful for babies and could even be potentially carcinogenic.
The nitrates that are contained in fertilizers are not thought to be harmful in themselves. However, certain bacteria in the soil convert nitrates into nitrite ions. Research has shown that when nitrite ions are ingested, they can get into the bloodstream. There, they bond with hemoglobin, a protein that is responsible for storing oxygen. When a nitrite ion binds with hemoglobin, it loses its ability to store oxygen, resulting in serious health problems.
Nitrosamines are another potential byproduct of the nitrates in fertilizer. They are the result of a natural chemical reaction of nitrates. Nitrosamines have been shown to cause tumors in laboratory animals, feeding the fear that the same could happen in humans. There has, however, been no study that shows a link between fertilizer use and human tumors.
Fertilizer research is currently focusing on reducing the harnful environmental impacts of fertilizer use and finding new, less expensive sources of fertilizers. Such things that are being investigated to make fertilizers more environmentally friendly are improved methods of application, supplying fertilizer in a form which is less susceptible to runoff, and making more concentrated mixtures. New sources of fertilizers are also being investigated. It has been found that sewage sludge contains many of the nutrients that are needed for a good fertilizer. Unfortunately, it also contains certain substances such as lead, cadmium, and mercury in concentrations which would be harmful to plants. Efforts are underway to remove the unwanted elements, making this material a viable fertilizer. Another source that is being developed is manures. The first fertilizers were manures, however, they are not utilized on a large scale because their handling has proven too expensive. When technology improves and costs are reduced, this material will be a viable new fertilizer.
Where to Learn More
Rao, N. S. Biofertilizers in Agriculture & Forestry. IBH, 1993.
Stocchi, E. Industrial Chemistry. Ellis Horwood, 1990.
Lowrison, George. Fertilizer Technology. John Wiley and Sons, 1989.
Kirschner, Elisabeth. "Fertilizer Makers Gear up to Grow." Chemical & Engineering News, March, 31 1997, p. 13-15.
— Perry Romanowski