One of the three major components of fertilizers is nitrogen, which is also one of the most vital elements for the maintenance of human life. However, food and energy production that support human activities have caused excess nitrogen under some conditions, leading to environmental changes with significant consequences. For example, in order to meet the demands of the growing global population, large-scaled grain production is being conducted around the world using enormous amounts of fertilizer. Rising demand for meat and dairy products has also led to an increasing number of farms, contributing to more farm waste, i.e. livestock manure. Most of the nitrogen contained in fertilizers and manure gets washed away by rain from land and into rivers and the ocean. This causes eutrophication of those waters and an overgrowth of algae, which decreases water’s oxygen levels and results in mass death of aquatic life. Further, nitrogen monoxide, produced when nitrogen in the soil is oxidized, gets released into the atmosphere as gas. The green house effect of nitrogen monoxide is said to be 300 times as much as carbon dioxide. Remaining nitrogen in the soil is also released into the atmosphere as ammonia or nitrogen oxide, which eventually returns to the surface of the earth as acid rain, destroying forests. Plant life plays an essential role in absorbing CO2 and producing oxygen for the earth, and so its mass destruction causes many environmental problems. The nitrogen cycle problem due to excessive use of fertilizers is in great need of solutions.
Figure (a) below shows nitrogen emissions on the earth’s surface by source. ‘Fixed’ nitrogen refers to atmospheric nitrogen that is fixed by microorganisms. ‘Deposits onto earth surface’ refers to nitrogen released into the atmosphere returning back to land with rain. As you can see, fertilizers and manure from livestock are major culprits pushing up the nitrogen levels. High activity in global farming is expected to continue along with growing demand for meat and dairy products, as shown in the prediction for the year 2050.
TKI is currently working on developing an innovative business that can solve the nitrogen problem. Contract research is being conducted with UCLA to develop the technology of protein extraction from farm waste, and re-using it as feedstock in a bio-process that can produce nitrogen fertilizers (NH3), bio fuels/ chemicals and livestock feed additives. Using nitrogen fertilizers obtained by this new process can make a huge impact on decreasing nitrogen emissions from conventional fertilizers, as shown in figure (b). TKI hopes to develop this technology and make it available around the world, and thus contribute to lessening the environmental impact of agriculture and solving the problem of excess nitrogen.
* ‘Nitrogen’ in this article refers to the element N, nitrogen containing compounds and oxides of nitrogen in fertilizers and manure, and other forms of nitrogen compounds. This is distinguished from nitrogen gas contained in the atmosphere.