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By C. Rhodes, P.Eng., Ph.D.

Nitrogen fertilizers are essential for intensive agriculture. Production of nitrogen fertilizers accounts for a significant fraction of total world energy consumption. The common nitrogen fertilizers are ammonium nitrate, potassium nitrate and ammonium phosphate. Nitrogen fertilizer production is based on production of ammonia. To produce ammonium phosphate a mineral phosphate is generally moved by rail to a location where ammonia is produced. In principle ammonia can be moved by rail, but the cost consequences of an accident causing an ammonia leak in an urban environment are enormous.

Some fertilizers contain potasium hydroxide (KOH) also known as potash, that may be be combined with a nitrogen compound during the fertilizer production process, such as by production of potasium nitrate (KNO3) also known as salt peter.

Ammonium nitrate is a major component of simple explosives. Potasium nitrate is a major component of gun powder.

The biggest input to ammonia production is hydrogen, so in the future nitrogen fertilizers should be produced at locations where electricity for electrolysis of water is relatively inexpensive and where price competitive international rail service is readily available.

Nitrogen fertilizers inherently have a high energy density, which makes real time control of hydrogen generation for nitrogen fertilizer production a good method of balancing electricity generation and electricity consumption on the electricity grid.

A further benefit of ammonia production via electrolytic hydrogen is that it displaces existing ammonia production via hydrogen obtained from natural gas. The usual natural gas based hydrogen production process emits large amounts of CO2.

This web page last updated May 16, 2013.

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