Researchers from China may have figured out how to significantly reduce the environmental impact of nitrogen-based fertilizers.
By investigating the effects of applying varying amounts of nitrogen in the form of Polymer Coated Urea (PCU) on maize yields and the resultant gaseous losses from the soil, researchers from a conglomerate of Chinese universities have greatly increased the efficiency of such fertilizers.
In the study titled ‘Reduction in nitrogen fertilizer applications by the use of polymer‐coated urea: effect on maize yields and environmental impacts of nitrogen losses,’ researchers compared maize yields and gaseous nitrogen losses from fields with zero-added nitrogen to those with urea (240 kilograms per hectare) and four levels of fertilization with PCU.
It was found that when compared to the urea plot, there was little variation in yields in the PCU fields. Nitrogen utilization efficiency was also found to have improved by 46 to 51.2 percent. The researchers concluded that the application of PCU could allow the reduction of nitrogen application by 20 to 30 percent.
Lack of nitrogen in the soil is one of the key factors limiting crop growth in agricultural systems across the globe. As such, the application of nitrogen-based fertilizers has been a staple in modern agriculture since the invention of the Haber-Bosch process (an artificial nitrogen fixation process used for the production of ammonia, which was a precursor to urea) in 1913.
With the world population set to rise to around 10 billion by 2050, the role of nitrogen-based fertilizers is more crucial now than ever before. However, nitrogen emissions such as ammonia and nitrous oxides are also a significant contributor to climate change as well as other environmental problems such as acid rain. Nitrogen pollutants that find their way into water bodies also boost algae growth and other forms of water pollution. Furthermore, nitrogen loss in the form of gaseous emissions is ultimately an economic loss to farmers as it is essentially wasted fertilizer.
This makes greater nitrogen efficiency essential for the sustainability of modern agricultural production.