Fifty Years of Fertilizer Progress

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<ul><li><p>. D. JACOB </p><p>Soil and Water Conservation Research Division, Agricultural Research Service, U. S. Department of Agriculture, Beltsville, Md. </p><p>Fifty Years of Fertilizer Progress </p><p>I HE ORGANIZATION in 1909 of the AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY'S Division of Fertilizer Chemistry is convincing evidence that 50 years ago fertilizer manufacture was already prominent among the nation's industries. In the same year, fertilizers received editorial mention in the very first issue of INDUSTRIAL AND ENGINEERING CHEMISTRY. Subsequent progress in fertilizer chemistry and technology has been recorded in this journal and the Society's other publications. </p><p>In 1908, the domestic consumption of commercial fertilizer totaled 4,449,000 tons of products containing 667,000 tons of the principal plant nutrients (, 25, K 2 0 ) and having a retail value near $128,-000,000. The close of the next half-century found American farmers using about 5 times this quantity of fertilizer which supplied 9.5 times as much nutrients at only 8.8 times the costan achievement to which chemists and chemical engineers made important contributions. </p><p>Research in the domestic fertilizer industry was still at a very low level 50 years ago. The chemist's role was chiefly in the field of routine analysis, and opportunities for chemical engineers were few, indeed. Low-analysis materials from natural organic sources accounted for more than half of the commercial fertilizer nitrogen (107,000 tons in 1908), while Chilean nitrate and ammonium sulfate supplied nearly all </p><p>of the remainder. Chemical processing was confined chiefly to the manufacture of acid phosphate (normal superphosphate) and kindred productsin much the same way as in the preceding 50 yearswhich furnished most of the P 2 O s (400,000 tons). The potash (K2O) consumption (160,000 tons) was almost entirely in the form of salts imported from Germany. However, technological developments were already under way, mostly in Europe, which foreshadowed revolutionary changes in the industry. </p><p>Nitrogen at Century's Turn </p><p>The future of nitrogen supplies was the paramount problem in fertilizers at the close of the 19th century. The apparent seriousness of the situation was emphasized forcefully in an address by Sir William Crookes. </p><p>Crookes' address was certainly a factor in so spurring the interest of the scientific and technical world that manufacture of nitrogen fertilizers from the air was realized in less than 10 years. Thus, Kristian Birkeland and Samuel Eyde accomplished the first successful operation of the electric-arc process in a full-size commercial plant in 1905 at Notod-den, Norway. At about the same time the calcium cyanamide process, based chiefly on the research of Adolph Frank and Nikodem Caro, gained commercial operation in Germany and Italy. Fixation of nitrogen in the Western Hemisphere began on a permanent basis with the opening of the cyanamide plant in Niagara Falls, Ont. , late in 1909. </p><p>Favored by an abundant supply of cheap electricity, Norway continued to be the principal locale of the arc process until its complete abandonment in 1939, largely be</p><p>cause of its very high energy requirementsome 65,000 kw. - hr. per metric ton of nitrogen fixed. On the other hand, cyanamide manufacturewith an energy requirement less than one fourth that of the arc processis still a factor in the nitrogen-fixation industry. </p><p>Direct Synthesis of Ammonia </p><p>By 1909, the basic research of Fritz Haber and coworkers, Walther Nernst, and others, had established the conditions favoring the catalytic synthesis of ammonia by direct union of nitrogen and hydrogen under high pressure. These studies and the pioneering work of Carl Bosch, Alwin Mittasch, and their associates resulted in the development of the first practical process of this kind and its application on a commercial scale at Oppau, Germany, in 1913, an accomplishment which, in the words of Harry A. Curtis, "stands out as one of the most brilliant achievements in the history of the chemical industry." Thus was initiated a process which by 1958 had gained world-wide use and was furnishing the greater portion of the total supply of fixed nitrogen (around 8,500,000 tons) for fertilizer and other purposes. At the end of 1957 the synthetic ammonia facilities operating or under construction in the United States alone comprised some 55 plants with a total capacity exceeding 4,000,000 tons, of nitrogen per year. And if you want further proof of the growth curve of ammonia, look at the production in 19098000 tons and then look at 1957's production3,711,-000 tons. </p><p>Especially significant in the development of the ammonia industry was the work of the Fixed Nitrogen Research Laboratory established in 1919 by an order of the Secretary </p><p>4 0 A INDUSTRIAL AND ENGINEERING CHEMISTRY </p></li><li><p>Nitrogen-rich ammonia is appl ied to growing crops by injection into the soil </p><p>one most important change has been the great progress, since 1940, in the manufacture of granulated mixtures. Requir ing special processes and equipment, this development is rapidly gaining major status. </p><p>T h e manufacture and use of liquid mixed fertilizers and fertilizer-pes-ticide mixtures has developed mostly since 1950. Compared with solid products, liquid mixtures appear to have the advantage of lower capital investment and labor costs, and the problems of physical con-dition and uniformity of composi-tion are less difficult. </p><p>Before 1925, the average concen-tration of the three principal plant nutrients in mixed fertilizers had been about 1 4 % for at least 45 years. Subsequently, the average has increased steadily, especially since World W a r I I , to 2 9 . 5 % in 1957. This change has made pos-sible huge savings in manufacturing, handling, transportation, and ap-plication costs per uni t of nutrients, an economy which is reflected in the fact that relative to costs in 1910-14 the index number of the price paid for fertilizer by the American farmer during the last decade has averaged only about 6 0 % of the index for all commodities bought for use in farm production. While this progress in-volved the efforts of people in, many fields, much credit must be given to the research of the chemist and the agronomist, not the least of which were the extensive studies of the properties of concentrated fer-tilizer materials and their behavior in mixtures conducted in the U. S. Depar tment of Agriculture under W. H . Ross (1915-45). </p><p>Looking Ahead </p><p>As the world will become in-creasingly dependent on commercial fertilizers to provide the food re-quirement of its expanding popula-tion, the outlook for the fertilizer industry appears to be promising, indeed. Each nutrient element per-forms specific functions in the growth and fruiting of plants, which brook no substitutes. Thus, unlike so many other manufactured commodi-ties, the essence of fertilizers is not subject to change, though its forms may differ greatly. T h e poten-tiality for the domestic industry is in-dicated by the fact that the current average use of the three principal plant nutrients in Western Europe </p><p>totals about 49 pounds per acre of agricultural land (including land under tree crops and permanent meadows and pastures), as compared with only 11.5 pounds in the United States. </p><p>T h e years ahead will see important advances in the technology of fer-tilizers and in the economy and efficiency of their use. New kinds of products will be developed, and the average nutrient content of the materials and mixtures will rise to even higher levels. Fur ther im-provement will be made in the physical condition of fertilizers and in the methods and means of dis-tributing them in the field. Atomic and solar energy may eventually be applied in the manufacture of ferti-lizers, specifically in fixing atmos-pheric nitrogen. </p><p>T h e near future holds no threat to the supremacy of synthetic am-monia as the basis for nitrogen fer-tilizers. For the United States at least, anhydrous ammonia, nitrogen solutions, ammonium nitrate, and urea will .continue to gain ground as the principal nitrogen materials. More attention to less-soluble forms of nitrogen, such as urea-formaldehyde products, can be expected. </p><p>T h e dominant position of normal superphosphate in the domestic phos-phate industry will be threatened increasingly by triple superphos-phate which might become the lead-ing source of P2O5 within the next </p><p>5 years. Greater production of ammonium phosphates and calcium metaphosphate is expected, but the immediate prospect for increased use of nitric acid in the domestic process-ing of phosphate rock appears to be small. Phosphoric acid will gain in the fertilizer industry, and ele-mental phosphorus will serve in-creasingly for fertilizer manufacture. </p><p>Potassium chloride is unlikely to suffer serious competition from other potash carriers in the fore-seeable future. </p><p>There is still room for great progress in the manufacture of gran-ular mixed fertilizers, and the po-tentialities of liquid mixtures are just being realized. Wider adop-tion of soil-testing practices and ever-mounting transportation costs could shift mixed-fertilizer production from large centralized plants to smaller local units. </p><p>Agronomic research has played a vital part in shaping the destiny of the fertilizer industry throughout the latter 's history. For the future, still greater emphasis should be placed on basic studies in plant nutri t ion and all of its interrelation-ships, so that , together with tech-nological research, the industry may be guided even more intelli-gently in providing the nutrients in the most efficient and economical forms for specific crops under vari-ous conditions of soil, climate, and cultural practice. </p><p>VOL. 50, NO. 5 MAY 1958 4 3 A </p></li><li><p>of War. Headed first by Arthur B. Lamb, then by Richard G. Tolman, Frederick G. Gottrell, and others, this laboratory investigated catalysts, preparation and purification of synthesis gas, design of high-pressure equipment, and other phases of the process. </p><p>Nitrogen Materials </p><p>Fifty years ago, sodium nitrate, ammonium sulfate, and relatively small quantities of cyanamide and calcium nitrateproducts containing less than 2 1 % nitrogenaccounted for nearly all of the world supply of chemical nitrogen fertilizers. The advent of synthetic ammonia paved the way, however, for remarkable changes. Today, the fertilizer nitrogen used in the United States originates mostly as ammonium nitrate (33.5% N) , urea (45% N), and such liquid products as anhydrous ammonia (82% N) and aqueous solutions of ammonia with ammonium nitrate or urea (35 to 50% N). </p><p>Initiated around 1930, the use of anhydrous ammonia and the aqueous solutions in the domestic manufacture of mixed fertilizers has so increased that the greater portion of the nitrogen in such fertilizers is now derived from these materials. Another important accomplishment, developed chiefly since World War I I , was the perfection of techniques and equipment for adding anhydrous ammonia to irrigation water and for injecting it into' the soil, thus enabling the farmer to use directiy the cheapest and most concentrated form of nitrogen; little practiced in other countries as yet, such consumption of nitrogen in the United States was nearly 400,000 tons in 1957. </p><p>Investigations in Canada and the United States during World War I I led to production of nearly pure ammonium nitrate in the form of granules suitable for fertilizer use, with the result that about 1,000,000 tons of such material are now consumed annually in the United States alone. </p><p>Manufacture of urea in the United States, previously limited to one plant, has increased tremendously in the last 10 years. The close of 1957 found nine facilities in operation and three under construction, with a total annual capacity near 725,000 tons. Although large quantities of urea are used for industrial purposes and as a protein supplement </p><p>in animal feeds, most of these plants look to fertilizer outlets for the major portion of their production. </p><p>Progress in Phosphates </p><p>Marked changes in the phosphate industry have occurred in the past 50 years. Processes have been improved greatly, new products have appeared, and elemental phosphorus has gained importance as a basic material for fertilizer manufacture. Although normal superphosphate, first made more than a century ago, still provides the greater portion (60% in 1957) of the world supply of fertilizer phosphorus, its dominance has been threatened progressively, particularly in the last decade, by more concentrated materialssuch as triple superphosphate, ammonium phosphates, and calcium metaphosphateas well as by the processing of phosphate rock with nitric acid and the direct use of phosphoric acid in the production of mixed fertilizers. </p><p>Domestic manufacture of triple superphosphate, the principal competitor of normal superphosphate, was established on a permanent basis in 1907 with the opening of a small plant at Charleston, S. C. The total annual capacity for producing triple superphosphate increased gradually to 793,000 tons (nine plants) in 1951. By the end of 1957, however, the capacity had risen to 2,225,000 tons in 15 plants having coexisting facilities for making phosphoric acid, and other plants produced the material with purchased acid in normal superphosphate equipment. In 1957, triple superphosphate supplied 3 8 % of the domestic output of phosphorus in the form of superphosphate, as compared with only 1 1 % in 1948. </p><p>Progress in the domestic production of fertilizer-grade ammonium phosphates, initiated on a large scale in 1917, includes the recently introduced manufacture of diam-monium phosphate with both byproduct and synthetic ammonia. This development was , the first major departure from ammonium sulfate as a fertilizer outlet for byproduct ammonia. Though still confined to a relatively small tonnage, manufacture of calcium metaphosphate, developed by the Tennessee Valley Authority during the last 20 years, is especially' significant because it marks the first de</p><p>parture from the orthophosphates in the history of the chemical fertilizer industry. </p><p>Before 1930, virtually all of the phosphoric acid used in fertilizer manufacture was made by the sulfuric acid process. In recent years, however, increasing quantities of acid made from electric-furnace phosphorus have been used. In 1955, for example, the domestic use of fertilizer phosphoric acid totaled 689,000 tons of P2O6, of which 9.8% was produced from phosphorus. First applied commercially by Readman in England about 1890, the electric furnace process has found its greatest development in the United States where, as in other countries, it still is operated chiefly in the interest of high-purity products for nonferti-lizer purposes. </p><p>Still in operation, the first electric-furnace plant for phosphorus in the United States was opened in 1897 at Niagara Falls, . ., with the chief initial purpose of supplying the match trade. From this beginning, the domestic industry...</p></li></ul>