Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Eating Air

Last month, I presented the notion that we basically eat oil in my post called Soylent Green. And, in many ways, that is true. According to this article by Dale Allen Pfeiffer, 400 gallons of oil equivalents are expended annually to feed each American (as of data provided in 1994).

Agricultural energy consumption is broken down as follows:
· 31% for the manufacture of inorganic fertilizer
· 19% for the operation of field machinery
· 16% for transportation
· 13% for irrigation
· 08% for raising livestock (not including livestock feed)
· 05% for crop drying
· 05% for pesticide production
· 08% miscellaneous

So, it is easy to say that the energy to provide this work comes primarily from fossil fuels, but it might not be necessarily accurate. And, it is certainly not accurate to say that it all comes from oil.

The actual fertilizer component comes from natural gas. The transportation would likely be oil as would the field machinery energy. The irrigation energy would be natural gas or electricity.

So it could be said that 50% of our food energy comes from natural gas, and the other half is oil. Of that, 20% could come from electricity which would likely be generated with coal, nuclear, or wind energy.

A quick quiz:

"What's the most important invention of the last few centuries?

Electricity?

Cars?

Computers?

Consider a far more obscure innovation: the process for turning air into nitrogen fertilizer.

German chemist Fritz Haber won a Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1918. Without it, the Earth wouldn't be able to support its current population.

At the turn of the 20th century, scientists warned that the world's population would soon outpace global food production. One promising solution was to create a fertilizer containing nitrogen.

A young, high-strung German chemist named Fritz Haber rose to the challenge. Around 1908, he discovered a way to tap into the atmosphere's vast reservoir of nitrogen gas and convert it into compounds plants can use. The innovation, called the Haber-Bosch process, produces liquid ammonia, the raw material for making nitrogen fertilizer.

Today, fertilizer factories pour out 100 millions tons of nitrogen each year, and an estimated two billion people depend on the process to help grow the food they eat. "

Yes I know that most of you believe that fertilizer comes from natural gas but it doesn't.

It comes from the air.

At least, that is where the Nitrogen comes from.

The Haber process combines the nitrogen in the air with hydrogen in the presence of an iron catalyst in an exothermic reaction to form ammonia. The ammonia is the chemical stock to make ammonium fertilizers and, of course, all kinds of other useful(horrible) things, like gunpowder, and other explosives.

Remember, Haber invented this process shortly before World War I as the natural nitrates of Chile were becoming more problematic for the Germans to mine and import. Although Haber earned a Nobel prize for his work with nitrogen, it's not his only legacy. He also pioneered the use of chemical warfare in World War I.

It is the paradox of science.

Just ask Einstein.

The reason we need natural gas to make fertilizer is because natural gas has 4 Hydrogen atoms to every Carbon atom. The chemical plants strip out the hydrogen, leaving CO2. This hydrogen is then combined with the nitrogen in the air to create ammonia.

We don't need natural gas to make fertilizer.

We need Hydrogen and we need Air.

As, I mentioned in my Solar Hydrogen Economy posts, humankind is capable right now of using large state of the art wind turbines in high resource regimes to produce electricity in the 2 cent/ KWh range. Power paints and other advanced solar hydrogen strategies will be able to approach these costs.

This electricity can be used to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen at prices that are affordable with today's fossil fuel market.

This hydrogen can be used to make fertilizer from the air.

This same renewable electricity can drive the electric motors that can operate the irrigation pumps, the drying fans, and even the farm machinery.

In short, the good news is this.

We don't need fossil fuels to continue eating.

We may be eating oil now.

But we could be eating air.

Literally.

The solar hydrogen economy can actually make the green revolution

green.

And the earthfamily will prosper.

We just need our principles.

And leadership.

And clear intent.



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4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks. I needed a shot of optimism this morning. CHF

7:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

why have I never known this? I always thought fertilizer came from oil.

7:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

super post. one of my favorites. MS

10:43 AM  
Blogger OZ said...

The solar hydrogen system of providing energy and food is within our grasp.

But, when do we begin to act?

When do we put down our routines
and treat this as an emergency?

I am asking myself these questions.

And I am beginning to come up with an answer.

More on that soon.

10:16 AM  

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