By Sharon Atieno
Fertilizers have revolutionized agriculture, leading to increased food production; however, the industrial production of fertilizers is among the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, which contributes significantly to climate change.
The Haber-Bosch process, used in manufacture of fertilizers, requires large amounts of energy and use of fossil fuels which leaves a large carbon footprint. In 2010, the Institute of Industrial Productivity estimates that the process led to the emission of around 451 million metric tons of carbon dioxide globally.
Despite this, the demand for fertilizers is set to increase with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) projecting that the increase will be up to 19 million tons by 2020.
Scientists across the globe have been looking for ways to make the process sustainable to reduce the amount of energy used as well as its negative impacts on the climate. Though some have carried successful experiments with renewable feedstocks and energy sources such as solar and wind, it has not been sustainable in the long run as they still combine the conventional Haber-Bosch process.
Dr. Stella Kabiri-Marial, Senior research officer at Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization notes that there is need to find alternative sources which are clean and do not pollute the environment.
In her research which she presented at the Connecting Minds Africa 2019 Conference convened by African Academy of Sciences (AAS) and its partners, she advocates for the use of plasma assisted nitrogen fixation technology which uses renewable energy sources.
“With this technology, I pass atmospheric air into plasma and get nitrogen fertilizer in liquid form,” she explains noting that majority of air is made up of nitrogen.
Though still in the experimental stage, the research will test the response of farmers especially women farmers to liquid fertilizers as opposed to the traditional solid form. It will also be tested on crops to find out the effectiveness of the liquid fertilizer compared to the conventional fertilizers, if it works even better, equally the same or slightly lower.
She says that the process at the moment produces a daily capacity that can fertilize up to 3.5 acres which when scaled up by setting up mini plants in the rural areas of Uganda will cater for the fertilizer gap and reduce the carbon footprint of importing fertilizers from outside the country.
East Africa which consists of Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya collectively leaves a carbon footprint of 4.9 million metric tons from importation of nitrogen fertilizers with Kenya leading at around 3.4 million.
“This is a climate mitigation method that aims to reduce the carbon footprint left by countries when importing fertilizers,” she adds while advocating for widespread use of the process across East Africa and Africa at large.
With UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 13 calling for urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts through developing sustainable low-carbon pathways to the future and accelerating the reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions, there is need to drive more funds to scale up projects such as this and avoid devastating climate change outcomes such as cyclones and hurricanes.