Turning coal into fertilizer

Many people don’t realize that fossil fuels not only play a crucial role in our food in terms of cultivation, transport, processing and storage; but also as an ingredient in fertilizer. In a sense, we eat fossil fuels.

We are particularly heavily dependent on natural gas as it’s the essential ingredient that makes up over 40% of the world’s nitrogen fertilizers – and our natural gas stocks are rapidly depleting.

Fortunately, or perhaps more accurately – unfortunately, coal may be able to fill the void in the absence of sufficient natural gas supplies.

Perdaman Chemicals and Fertilisers is developing a US$2.5 billion nitrogen fertiliser manufacturing plant at Collie, Western Australia, transforming sub-bituminous coal into urea.

The company says the coal gasification process used in the production of urea from the Collie Urea plant will produce lower emissions than a coal fired power plant of an equivalent size.

How much of a reduction is unclear and regardless, it will still be spewing many tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year that otherwise would not have been generated.

The plant is investigating clean coal technologies such as carbon sequestration to deal with these emissions, but this is something that’s still a way off becoming a reality on a commercial scale – anywhere in the world in fact. And besides, clean coal technologies require more energy and more energy means – more coal, more coal mining and all the environmental nasties that go along with it.

It really seems we are caught between a rock and a hard place now – if we run out of natural gas, we run low on fertilizer, meaning famine. If we continue to pursue coal, it will only add to our global warming woes, meaning climate change, with famine also being a possible end result.

This is only one of the major challenges facing food production and we really need to reconsider the future of food.

Something that struck me today is how most of the major environmental problems we are experiencing are directly related to digging up stuff that’s often buried deep in the ground.

Maybe nature buried it for good reason – it’s become clear our tapping into it in such volumes was never a part of the grand design.


Fuel as food