In 1798 Thomas Malthus, a British scholar, postulated that the world would reach an agricultural disaster (known as the Malthusian catastrophe). He derived this from the linear relationship between farming techniques of the day and the availability of land along with population growth. This would hold true until the summer of 1909 when Fritz Haber, a German chemist, pioneered a process that could convert nitrogen from the air into ammonia. This was of immense importance because plants require a large amount of nitrogen in their growth cycle and often it is the limiting factor in plant development. Carl Bosch was assigned the task, by the company that purchased Fritz Bosch’s process, of scaling up the procedure to suit industrial needs. This proved to be of such momentous importance that Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch were awarded the Nobel prize and the procedure became known as the Haber-Bosch process.
The Haber-Bosch process helped farmers to scale from a linear agricultural output to an exponential one, where the ammonia-based fertilizer became widely used to grow larger, more abundant crops. It is estimated that 40 percent of the world’s food is grown from fertilizer produced by the Haber-Bosch process. However this is not without its cost. The amount of energy needed to superheat the ammonia from the atmosphere and bond it with the hydrogen from natural gas is approximately one percent of the world’s total energy consumption.
New technologies are currently being developed in order to combat this high energy cost. New catalysts made of ruthenium are being tested that would cut the energy required to make fertilizer by nearly an order of magnitude. Given that the current production uses 150 gigawatts of electricity per year that’s a substantial energy savings. Another alternative is the winter rotation of legumes, many of which have symbiotic relationships in their root systems with bacteria that have an enzymatic process to “fix” nitrogen into the soil making it available for plants.
Rather than wait for researchers to find a solution to this issue many farmers have turned to traditional farming techniques. They employ the above-mentioned crop-rotation along with using compost as fertilizer rather than synthetically made fertilizers from the Haber-Bosch process. As individuals we can all help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels by frequenting local farmer’s markets and educating ourselves on the way our food was grown. By supporting local farmers who use earth-friendly techniques we can help grow our community and cut our carbon footprint at the same time.