Are Fertilizers Energy Intensive To Produce?


Fertilizers are utilized all over the world in order to aid in the production of food and other plant-related goods. This has been the case since 1914 when synthetic fertilizers were first introduced. The world has been utilizing this product ever since, but do fertilizers actually take up a ton of energy to manufacture? 

Fertilizers are energy-intensive to produce. This is because of the method used to create them known as the Haber Bosch process. This process utilizes large amounts of energy to create ammonia (which is used in the majority of fertilizers) and thus creates nitrogen-rich fertilizer. 

In the rest of this article, I will go over why synthetic fertilizers take so much energy to make, the type of energy used, how much is needed, and more. If you would like to keep learning about the energy consumption of fertilizers, be sure to keep reading. 

Why Are Fertilizers So Energy Intensive To Produce?

Synthetic fertilizers are widely used worldwide for large fields of crops and even small home gardens. So, if these fertilizers are so energy-intensive to create, why are they used? Why are they so complicated to manufacture? 

Fertilizers are so energy-intensive to produce due to the amount of power that must be used to create the synthetic chemicals necessary for nutrient-rich fertilizer. The creation of synthetic fertilizer is accomplished through what is known as the Haber Bosch process. 

However, even though fertilizer production uses a ton of energy, these fertilizers are a necessary evil as they help feed the world’s people and animals. Synthetic fertilizers are a majority of the reason food production has picked up and is so readily available at your local grocery store. 

What Type of Energy Is Used To Make Fertilizer?

As you know, fertilizer is essential when it comes to growing large, delicious crops despite the energy drain that occurs. Next, I want to discuss what types of energy are used to power these factories that make synthetic fertilizers. 

Electricity, natural gas, coal, and oil are the primary types of energy used to make fertilizer. Fertilizer utilizes a ton of power to create the necessary synthetic chemicals. However, some fertilizer production companies opt to use solar, steam, or waste heat to help reduce their energy usage.

As you can see, there are quite a few options to choose from when it comes to powering a company’s production of fertilizer. Currently, there is no immediate plan for all of these companies to switch to greener production methods. However, the industry is constantly changing, and we can only hope that a more planet-friendly solution is just around the corner. 

How Much Energy It Takes To Produce Fertilizer

I have talked about how much of an energy drain producing nitrogen-based fertilizer can be, but how much energy does it actually take to produce fertilizer? It can’t be that much, right?

Well, currently, the fertilizer industry makes up more than 1.2% of the world’s total energy usage. That number may sound small, but that’s a lot of power for one industry to be using. This is primarily due to the complex process used to synthesize the chemicals found inside most fertilizers. 

Over 88% of nitrogen found in the US is used in the production of fertilizer, making the United States one of the largest producers of synthetic fertilizers. However, other countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia also produce large amounts of nitrogen-based fertilizers.

The hope is that, over time, this industry can begin to decrease its carbon footprint and start to search out greener alternatives for energy consumption. However, this will take time; in the meantime, the world still highly depends on the fertilizer produced. 

How Fertilizers Are Made

Now that you understand a little more about how much energy is used to create fertilizers and what kind, I will go over the process that is used to make them. The process is surprisingly simple, though you wouldn’t be able to replicate it easily at home. 

So, how exactly does the Haber Bosch process work? 

Well, nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas are compressed and placed into a reactor, producing ammonia. The resulting gasses are then cooled and liquified. Any nitrogen and hydrogen gas that hasn’t been used up will be recycled for later ammonia production. The ammonia can then be further changed and turned into aluminum nitrate for fertilizer. 

This process is then repeated millions of times to keep up with the demand for fertilizer. This type of nitrogen-based fertilizer is used in almost every crop field to stimulate the healthy growth of plants. In the end, this results in more food being available for the populace. 

For a more detailed guide on how the Haber Bosch process works, I recommend watching FuseSchool – Global Education’s video on the fertilizer creation process. They do a fantastic job of explaining the science behind the process in a simple, easy-to-understand way. 

What Are Fertilizers Made Of?

Now that you understand how the chemicals are produced in order to create fertilizer, it’s time to talk about what fertilizers are made of. You know that nitrogen and hydrogen are used to produce ammonia, which is a primary ingredient in fertilizer, but what else makes up fertilizer?

Fertilizer is generally made of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These three nutrients are the building blocks for healthy soil and plants. Most fertilizers also tend to contain other natural ingredients and are packed full of nutrients for your plants, like CO2. 

However, if you are working with organic fertilizer, these ingredients can drastically change, though you will still see a combination of:

  • Nitrogen
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium 

You may also notice a lot more organic matter and minerals. This is due to the fact that most organic fertilizer is created using compost. Organic fertilizer strictly utilizes plant and animal matter, so it will primarily be made up of manure, dead leaves, rotting fruits, and veggies. 

These types of fertilizers are just as effective when used to grow crops. However, they can be more or less effective to produce, as synthetic fertilizers can be mass-produced quickly. The ability to mass-produce fertilizer has led to increased food production over the years. 

If you are looking for an excellent organic fertilizer, I recommend FoxFarm’s Liquid Nutrient Trio Soil Formula (available on Amazon.com). This organic fertilizer is great because it’s a liquid, which means it allows the nutrients to better soak into the soil. It also works well on late-season flowers and fruit. Plus, it is created without using energy-intensive processes. 

Frequently Asked Questions 

Below I will address some of the most common questions surrounding fertilizer and its production.

Is Fertilizer Considered Energy?

Fertilizer is not considered energy. However, it does help plants produce energy by providing them with the nutrients necessary to convert their food to energy to promote plant growth. This allows plants to better produce large and healthy crops. This helps to feed animals and people.  

What Is the Difference Between Synthetic and Organic Fertilizer?

The difference between synthetic and organic fertilizer is that synthetic fertilizer is produced in a factory using the Haber Bosch process, while organic fertilizer is made naturally using ingredients like cow manure and plant matter. Both are effective at aiding in the production of food. 

Where Does Most Fertilizer Come From?

Most fertilizer comes from Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and the United States. This is due to the fact that these countries have large amounts of nitrogen that can easily be turned into fertilizer for crops, and many of these countries, including the US, have nitrogen imported as well. 

Conclusion 

Ultimately, fertilizers are incredibly energy-intensive to produce, making up a significant percentage of the world’s total energy use. However, the fertilizer industry is very much needed in order to grow enough produce for the world’s people and animals. 

So, for now, fertilizer is a needed drain on our energy resources. However, there are some companies that are opting for a more green approach and have started powering their factories using solar, waste, heat, and steam where they can. Who knows—maybe this industry will be more green in the future. 

Alexander Picot

Alexander Picot is the principal creator of TheGrowingLeaf.com, a website dedicated to gardening tips. Inspired by his mother’s love of gardening, Alex has a passion for taking care of plants and turning backyards into feel-good places and loves to share his experience with the rest of the world.

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