A National Renewable Ammonia Architecture

Update May 15, 2009. Please note that an updated expanded version has been published on the strandedwind website. An Oil Drum summary of the new version can be found here.

This white paper describes the current manufacture and uses of ammonia as well as describing a path forward to a fully renewable future for this vital fertilizer ingredient. The primary author and editor is Neal Rauhauser, known on TOD SacredCowTipper, with assistance in its development rendered by Dave Bradley, known as nb41, Bryan Lutter, known as CropDuster, Larry Bruce, and others.

Ammonia Production Methods Today

It can be argued that ammonia is perhaps the most critical manmade substance to the existence of human society. Without continuing agricultural growth, the world's expanding population faces famine and the concomitant breakdown of civil society. The expansion of population and modern society is based on fertilizer driven agriculture...and modern nitrogen fertilizer is ammonia. Traditional agricultural strategies of slash and burn, fallow fields and crop rotation were gradually replaced in the 19th century by fertilizer from the mining of nitrates and harvesting of guano deposits. At the dawn of the 20th century, the end was in sight for Chilean nitrate deposits and there was growing concern that a worldwide famine would ensue. The discovery of ammonia synthesis by Fritz Haber and subsequent commercialization by Carl Bosch in 1910 freed the human race of the need to worry about a source of nitrogen fertilizer for a century.

The Haber Bosch process requires only pure nitrogen, pure hydrogen, and a high pressure reactor with a catalyst in order to produce ammonia. The nitrogen is free for the taking from the air but hydrogen, no matter what method we use to obtain it, involves the use of energy. The primary sources for the hydrogen used in ammonia manufacture today are natural gas and coal. There are an increasing number of petroleum coke projects in development, and a handful of remaining hydroelectric facilities built forty to sixty years ago.

Natural gas is the cleanest high volume production method used today, generating only about two tons of carbon dioxide for every ton of ammonia produced. Just as oil fields deplete, natural gas resources are being depleted as well. The year 2007 saw the closure of the Agrium facility in Kenai, Alaska due to natural gas depletion, the impending conversion of Rentech's East Dubuque facility to coal from natural gas, and the Farmland Chemicals plant from Lawrence, Kansas resuming operation after being dismantled and reconstructed in its new location in natural gas rich Oman.

Natural gas supplies are certain to decline in the long term...and in the short term the price will be unpredictable. Coal is plentiful, petroleum coke is also readily available, but the carbon in these fuels is used in a gasification process to strip hydrogen from water will result in a tremendous expansion of CO2 emissions. Coal based production emits about four tons of carbon dioxide per ton of ammonia and petroleum coke produces a bit more than that. All planned new production both domestically and globally seems to be coal gasification based. Carbon dioxide figures are uncertain as plant efficiency can have significant (25% or more) influence on overall output, but they are a good first approximation for estimates of national or global scope.

Global Ammonia Production Emissions

Global ammonia production is about 69% natural gas and 29% coal. One petroleum coke system is in operation today and three legacy hydroelectric facilities nearing end of life contribute about 1.5% of the total global production of 131 million tons.

The 90 million tons of ammonia produced annually with natural gas release 180 million tons of carbon dioxide. The 38 million tons of ammonia produced with coal released an estimated 152 million tons of carbon dioxide. The total 332 million tons of emissions are 7.3 % of the estimated 4,500 million tons of worldwide emissions of CO2.

Given that natural gas supplies are fragmented and depleting quickly it is reasonable to assume that existing natural gas based ammonia plants could be converted to coal gasification in an emergency. Should this happen ammonia related carbon dioxide emissions would climb to 524 million tons which would equal 11.6% of the 4,500 million tons humans already add to the atmosphere.

Ammonia In Domestic Agriculture

Fully half of all human protein comes from man made ammonia. Plants require nitrogen to produce protein and ammonia is the only viable source for large scale nitrogen applications. The United States uses about 18.5 million tons of ammonia annually from the global production of 131 million tons. 90% of this is used in agriculture. Over the last forty four years of statistics corn has averaged nearly 44% of the total, wheat almost 14%, and the remaining 42% of agricultural use is spread among all other crops.

American farmers planted 86 million acres of corn and 65 million acres of wheat in 2008.Corn fertilization averaged 170 pounds of ammonia per acre and wheat received 72 pounds per acre. Yields averaged 154 bushels per acre for corn and 36 bushels per acre for wheat.

Fertilization rates are given in ammonia equivalents. Depending on the crop, producer preference and availability, ammonia can be applied in various compounds. Actual usage by volume of nitrogen was anhydrous ammonia (59%), urea (27%), a mixture of urea and ammonium nitrate known as UAN (9%), and the remainder were various specialty forms of fixed nitrogen such as ammonium phosphate compounds.

Properly fertilized wheat will yield fifty to sixty bushels an acre while alternating fallow cultivation methods will struggle to produce just a little more than half that amount. Protein content is also a concern – hard red spring wheat will have up to 17% protein when fertilized and as little as 9% if not. Many farmers didn't fertilize in the fall of 2008 due to the difference between grain price and ammonia price which may mean a 50% reduction in total yield and a a 40% reduction in protein in what is harvested. If this has happened to farmers in all of the large wheat exporting nations, and we believe it has, it's a recipe for collapsing governments all over the developing world.

The corn crop is raised primarily for its starch content and protein is not closely tracked. A sudden reduction in ammonia based fertilizer input here will have the same yield effect as is seen with wheat – a sudden plunge to about half of the current average.

Domestic Ammonia Production Facilities

These 29 locations are ammonia plants either operating or, in the case of the recently idled Agrium Kenai facility, in good enough condition to be returned to service. Many of these plants are not purely ammonia production but instead operate in conjunction with follow on fertilizer manufacturing or are involved in the production of derivative industrial products such as nitric acid. All capacity figures are in thousands of tons of ammonia per year.

Owner Location Capacity
Agrium Borger-TX 490
Agrium Kenai-AK 280
Agrium Kennewick-WA 545
CF Industries Donaldsonville-LA 2040
Coffeyville Resources Coffeyville-KS 375
Dakota Gasification Beulah-ND 363
Dyno Nobel Cheyenne-WY 174
Dyno Nobel St. Helens-OR 101
Green Valley Creston-IA 32
Honeywell International Hopewell-VA 530
Koch Nitrogen Beatrice-NE 265
Koch Nitrogen Dodge City-KS 280
Koch Nitrogen Enid-OK 930
Koch Nitrogen Fort Dodge-IA 350
Koch Nitrogen Sterlington-LA 1110
LSB Industries Cherokee-AL 159
LSB Industries Pryor-OK 300
Mosaic Company Donaldsonville-LA 508
PCS Nitrogen Augusta-GA 688
PCS Nitrogen Geismar-LA 483
PCS Nitrogen Lima-OH 542
PCS Nitrogen Memphis-TN 371
Rentech Energy East Dubuque-IA 278
Terra Industries Beaumont-TX 231
Terra Industries Donaldsonville-LA 360
Terra Industries Port Neal-IA 336
Terra Industries Verdigris-OK 953
Terra Industries Woodward-OK 399
Terra Industries Yazoo City-MS 454
Total 13945

U.S. Ammonia Facilities Excluding Alaska

This is a link to the Google Earth file that was used to produce the map image you see. Clicking individual site markers will lead to the given company's web page associated with the site, should I have been able to locate one. Koch and Terra are particularly forthcoming regarding what their plants actually produce.

Domestic Ammonia Economics

Domestic ammonia production was 10.7 million tons in 2007 and the USGS states that plants were running at 84% capacity, I list the Agrium Kennewick facility which is easily locatable both via Google Earth and web searches but it did not make the USGS plant list for that year. Capacity and production figures are not exact and I attribute this to overall market instability – plants were on and off based on commodity prices.

2007 imported ammonia totaled 7.9 million tons. Major suppliers were Trinidad (55%), Russia (21%), and Canada (12%). The price at port is stated to be $339/ton indicating a transfer of $2.7 billion overseas. 2008 prices were dramatically higher and wealth transfer was perhaps double this amount.

Trinidad, supplier of over half of our total imports, had reserves of 30.7 trillion cubic feet (~17 Tcf proven, 7.8 Tcf probable, 5.9 Tcf possible) of natural gas in 2004 and usage was just under a trillion cubic feet a year. Many additional industrial plants meant to use the inexpensive gas and labor in this Caribbean country were planned to come online between 2008 and 2010. A 2004 IMF study indicates that Trinidad would exhaust its reserves within ten years of these plants becoming active. The global economic recession should slow domestic industrial consumption but liquid natural gas exports will ensure an ongoing drawdown of reserves. Russian exports are subject to rising geopolitical tensions. TOD contributor Jon Freise has published a report indicating that Canadian natural gas is on a path to negative EROI within the next six years.

The three largest ammonia import sources are all under different stresses and will all fail within at most a decade, cutting the United States off from 88% of current imports. This alone will amount to a reduction in ammonia supplies in the continental United States of about 36%. Domestic natural gas fueled manufacturers face similar issues.

National Ammonia Independence

The United States can and must achieve national ammonia independence by a mix of refurbishing existing plants and construction of new renewable production facilities.

Existing facilities could produce about 14 million tons of ammonia annually and would require 2.5 million tons of hydrogen to do this. This hydrogen, current produced from a mix of natural gas and coal gasification could be replaced with electrolytically produced hydrogen.

Using current electrolyzers 6,300 two megawatt units would be required and assuming 8,760 hours of operation annually 12,500 megawatts of continuous power would be needed to fully replace hydrogen derived from fossil fuels. A scheme to buffer renewably produced hydrogen output would enhance the flexibility of such a configuration but at this time the best buffer seems to be just getting on with the process of making ammonia. Even so, the Louisiana ammonia plants may have access to nearby salt domes which would allow the creation of solution mined caverns capable of storing large volumes of hydrogen, a configuration that would naturally complement the large amount of wind resources available on the Texas plains.

Imports total 7.9 million tons. Based on business planning done by Third Mode Energy we calculate that this volume of production could be covered by 7,900 megawatts of continuous power and a $25 billion investment in Haber Bosch style plants. Assuming $0.04/kwh electricity resulting in an annual cost of $2.8 billion the physical plant costs could be recouped in ten to fifteen years given the ammonia pricing we saw in 2008. Hydroelectric or nuclear are the only clean power sources steady enough to drive this process today. We believe there is a simple route to a system that would work with a hybrid wind and base load power source but this likely uneconomical; why would anyone build a wind driven plant to run 85% of the time and only achieve 40% of capacity when the same equipment could be installed near a hydroelectric facility and produce 100% of the time?

Immediate construction of renewable ammonia facilities based on the very well known Haber Bosch process should begin at once but funds must be directed to promising new synthesis methods as well. Solid state ammonia synthesis (SSAS) promises capital costs that are half of the Haber Bosch systems, power costs that are perhaps 25% less, and the ability to build plants a tiny fraction of the size of a Haber Bosch plant, making it suitable for use with power sources as small and as variable as a single utility scale wind turbine.

Renewable Electric Sources

Ammonia can be produced by a completely carbon free process that releases no greenhouse gases. What is needed is renewably generated electricity at a relatively low cost, air and water.

Hydroelectric power for ammonia.

The United States Department of the Interior maintains a national inventory of dams – a database of over 8,800 locations in the United States with information regarding their purpose. This map and associated Google Earth file show 352 locations with either an impoundment in excess of eight square miles or a run of river installation. There is a negative correlation between good cropland and the elevation changes needed for good hydroelectric power. Hydroelectric power in the $0.02/kwh to $0.04/kwh range will yield ammonia in the $350 to $500/ton range.

Run Of River Or Impoundments Greater Than 5,120 Acres

Wind power for ammonia

There is excellent correlation between national wind resources and the wheat growing states of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Kansas. The corn growing states of Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota have good wind resources in their own right and usable rail links to the wind rich Dakotas. Assuming the wind intermittency problem can be remedied, either by the mastery of the solid state ammonia synthesis process or the creation of a grid footprint large enough to ensure continuous production, a wind energy based ammonia production industry can be envisioned. 7,900 2.5 megawatt turbines each with a 40% capacity factor would produce the electricity needed to cover the anticipated import deficit.

National Wind Energy Map

Solar power for ammonia

Solar PV costs are too high for ammonia production based on current technology, but solar ammonia has potential.. A clever concentrated solar storage process using ammonia is in the pilot phase at the Australian National University but at this time there is no commercially deployable ammonia synthesis solution tuned for the sunny, relatively windless American southwest. A concentrated effort to develop such a thing would permit ammonia manufacture in that region, creating a domestic bilateral energy/food circuit in place of a similar trade arrangement with less friendly parts of the world.

National Solar Energy Map


As this report is based on public information in the midst of tremendous stress on farmers, cooperatives, and lending institutions in agricultural areas, it is certain to have missed some of the details. The big concern is that the foundations of it are correct and defensible. We look forward to the insightful comments from TOD's community.

I wonder if the solid state process could use windpower->battery bank electricity. The advantage of hydrous processes used in some electrolytic metals purification is I believe in some case you can turn down the amps provided the voltage stays up. The deposition rate merely slows. A generalisation of ammonia is what I'd call 'lightly bound hydrogen'. Martian astronauts are supposed to be making their own methane via the Sabatier reaction. Combined with the synthetic oxygen that will power their rocket flight home to Mother Earth. Otherwise not good.

Hydrogen could come from from low temp electrolysis of water powered by renewables (with lousy EROEI) or high temp dissociation of water via solar thermal or nukes. Perhaps a mixed approach could work. Note the solar thermal ammonia demo plant in Australia will be close to uranium mines so will invite comparison with nuclear.

Finally I wonder if we could stretch nitrogen fertiliser with composts and rhizome planting. Note that you can scald growing plants with direct application of synthetic urea. It may be better to add a small amount of urea to a sludge of charcoal and compost, except you need more machine effort to spread it on the fields.

I can't speak to the far travel scenarios :-)

There is a solar thermal ammonia energy storage scheme being done in Australia. I met the researcher on it Rebecca Dunn, and I got a bit of detail at that time, but it's just now being commercialized.

The nitrogen problem is a mass balance issue - those things you describe work ... but how does a farmer, like Bryan Lutter who handles 2,000 acres, stretch his household waste and lawn clippings over three square miles? Soil reconstruction like that is possible but we're talking massive geo-engineering given the scale of our grain cultivation.

I understand the solar ammonia power station will be built at Whyalla Australia near where a 120 ML/day (31m US gall) desal plant will be built for Olympic Dam mine. It's supposed to be a joint project between two unis I've hung around. Even if they crack 20 MW that's peanuts compared to what's going on in the area so it really needs to impress.

I think for 2000 acres large compost bins the size of swimming pools need to be set up. Throw in everything ... macerated garbage, dead animals, worms, waste, weeds. When it is ripe stir in $20 of synthetic urea. Enjoy, plants that is. Or maybe inject the N-rich 'tea' into irrigation water then keep the leftovers for a smaller acreage.

Note that the demand for plug and play replacements in a given agricultural system are medium term rather than long term ... if replacement of grain monoculture with the mixed culture with nitrogen fixing plants grown side by side with nitrogen hungry plants cannot be managed with one farmer per 2,000 acres (800ha), then smaller farms may be required. That kind of transition cannot occur in a couple of years, but it clearly can occur in a couple of decades, given the changes in farm size we have seen in our history.

The thing about longer time scales, of course, is that it becomes far harder to project ahead with any confidence, which increases the importance of investing in multiple solutions to long term problems.

It may be better to add a small amount of urea to a sludge of charcoal and compost

Eprida's process makes ammonium bicarbonate as a binder for charcoal.

What capacity do electric powered ammonia synthesis plants have to use off-peak power or do they have to run at 100% capacity or shut down? If they can be flexible in power consumption this would work better with wind power, especially if sited close to major wind farms.

The existing Haber Bosch process prefers to run at 100% but it's possible to throttle it down to around 20% of the normal reaction rate without cooling the system, which would potentially result in catalyst poisoning and metal fatigue. It's possible in the thermo-mechanical realm, but I think not so easy to sell it in the financial.

Why would you build a $100M facility next to a wind farm and run it 85% of the time and only get 40% utilization through the year when you could build next to a dam and get 100%?

There is something to be said for setting up such a system to run on overnight generation but I've not yet dug deep into wind production information to know how much of the off hour production is going to waste. If operators really are paying to have excess electricity hauled away perhaps it would be a good thing to make ammonia on a variable basis.


Why would you build a $100M facility next to a wind farm and run it 85% of the time and only get 40% utilization through the year when you could build next to a dam and get 100%?

You'd build a $100m facility next to a wind farm because of access to cheap electricity part of the time, and buy the power from the Electricity Superhighway the balance of the time.

Of course, that assumes the existence of the Electricity Superhighway. And then the 5% line loss between the dam and the plant will cost much more per kWh than equivalent 5% line loss if built near the dam and buying cheap power from the wind farm via the Electricity Superhighway when the wind is strong. So you'd still locate near the dam.

You'd throttle demand for power based on current cost based on the trade-off between operating costs and capital costs ... and for the current technology, that trade-off likely says very little excess capacity can be purchased with the operating cost savings of increasing the share of ammonia produced with less expansive power ... which is why the lower capital cost technologies for ammonia production are intriguing.

Interruptable power will get you a much better rate. How fast can an ammonia plant electrical load be ramped up or down? If load can be dropped off or picked up quickly enough the utility might give a much better rate for power. Going from 100% load to 20% load in under a minute would be very valuble. The lower cost of the electricity might make the plant competitive. A large industrial load that can be picked up or dropped off quickly is as good as a gas turbine for load leveling. Bonneville Power has a program to pay industries to reduce load in critical periods, which is cheaper than buying peaking power in certain areas (especially the Olympic peninsula in Washington).

Where can I get more information on the power stuff? That sounds really interesting ...

7,900 2.5 megawatt turbines is a lot of turbines. That is the size currently being put up around our farm. They are huge and I believe they cost about 2.5 million each. The 180 turbines cover an area that I would estimate to be well over 50 square miles.

At 2.5 million each the cost would be 19.75 billion. Having watched construction all last summer and even now of the Crystal Lake wind farm, 7,900 would be a major, major project. Construction of 43 more of this size wind farm boggles the mind.

Many farmers over apply nitrogen. A lot is lost in fall application in my opinion and early application in the spring can also disappear if there is a lot of rain. 170 pounds is way too much for a 154 bushel yield.

The rule of thumb is one pound of nitrogen per bushel of corn. But if crop rotation is practiced, and it usually is, soybeans add about 1 pound of nitrogen for each bushel of beans produced. On my farm that's about 50 pounds per acre. So I put on 125 pounds of nitrogen in the form of urea just before planting. The yield this fall was about 170 bushels of corn per acre. Urea was the only fertilizer I used because of high prices this year.

No doubt corn yields would drop dramatically without nitrogen application, but I doubt they would drop by half if crop rotation is used. Also spreading hog manure is a big deal around here as a source of nitrogen. I hate it because of the stench. But with so many hog factories nearby it is a significant source of nitrogen.

I had hopes some hog factories would shut down because of high corn prices, but few do. They seem to keep going and just absorb the losses.

Wind turbines don't need two hundred acres each :-) I believe they want either three or seven blade lengths between them, beyond that it's about micrositing. A slight rise can dramatically increase ... or decrease yield, if some skill is not applied to the final location selection.

I'm going to defer to Bryan Lutter on the fertilizer points - he is a professional agronomist and he should be along shortly.

Hello SCT, Nb41, CropDuster, et al,

Huge Kudos on this keypost! I was hoping you would weigh in on the nitrogen[N] of I-NPK flowrates to help spread the concern-->IMO, the Elements N,P,K,S & food supply topics are wildly unappreciated [even here on TOD] in their dire potential to really disrupt our global economy and civilization when FFs decline postPeak. I just did a quick article skim-->I hope to add more comments after closer study.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

I suppose I should be crediting you as part of the motivation for doing this. It might be a little premature to mention but we're developing a relationship with an environmental engineering company. We started talking to them because they can do the balance of plant work for us - buildings, wiring, piping, etc - we're just designers at a conceptual level.

They do all of that ... but their big claim to fame is municipal waste water treatment. I've yet to take up the discussion of how to recover the other two legs of the NPK triad - I want us to demonstrate some success with the market we understand first. I do envision us having a go at that in 2009, perhaps by issuing an ideation challenge via http://innocentive.com to come up with some novel recovery methods. Perhaps the biodiesel production is a vehicle - not benefitting the food circuit that way, but it'll be a nice start to cleaning up that dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and once we get into the swing of recovering vital nutrients for some use the food aspect of it will come up sooner or later.

Yep, saw those weblinks earlier, but always good to give newbies a heads up. I got to agree on your strategy to try and show success in ammonia [N] first--it will be the most difficult, huge flowrate to postPeak sustain if financing is mostly kaput and natgas goes belly up. P & K will mostly just sit in the soil until used [unless washed away], but N leaches and/or gas volatilizes away at a much faster rate--a real Red Queen treadmill of diminishing returns as our topsoil continues to deplete.

Just in case you missed this recent UN FAO PDF link:

Forecasting Long-term Global Fertilizer Demand 2015,2030

[TABLE 3] North America N-only forecast: 2015 = 21.2, 2030 = 28.1
Your article said we used approx. 17.0 in US ag last year and Domestic ammonia production was 10.7 million tons in 2007.

I think you got a hell of a lot of postPeak US work ahead to meet this demand if there is insufficient natgas and coal for making N, then insufficient crude to get it transported for the final topsoil square foot application. For example: You got just six years to DOUBLE N-production if our N-imports are cutoff for some reason on Jan. 1, 2015. Don't forget that Germany cut us off from K back in 1914-1918.

I could really use some ammunition on these old fertilizer issues we faced. Do you have a basketfull of good links for me?

I have stated more than a few times on TOD that I believed the next to crash would be Ag.

Reading these two articles sorta nails it down to some degree.

Around here we don't dry our corn on the farm storage. Grain elevators do for the wetter corn so the propane shortage might not have been very visible. But the Nh3 costs have.

But lets think about this. Mass starvation? Where? Here or to those we ship grain to? Surely we have plenty for our nation's needs. Might be costly but its there.

The day might come and very soon when we have to look out just for ourselves, selfish that might seem. Currently some countries are playing political and economic games with oil. Russia for instance.

Can food be any different then? When they need our grain desperately will they still be playing hardball with their petroleum?

A governmental play for sure. Farmers just do the best they can and the prices dictate most of it.

The future is very cloudy on crops for this coming year. I have not heard much discussion because I think, they just don't like to talk of gloom and doom for fear it will self-fullfil. They shy away from such except very privately. This is I think because they are so very very deeply into credit. Massive credit. Unbelievable credit.

And I mean like millions...all backed by their assets. Land,buildings and machinery and usually not near enough to cover the loans.

So when a farmer of any size busts out. Its not pleasant and very big. They go down badly. Thats how I got my farm back in the mid 80a.
A bad time.


What a WONDERFUL informative piece this is SacredCowTipper!!!

Those of us in production ag are often incredibly guilty (at least in my case) of knowing very little about where our fertilizer originates. I find it flabbergasting that the USA imports a larger percentage of N fertilizer than we do oil. Even more amazing is that this is a fairly new reality.

I don’t spend a lot of time in the true corn-belt, but I’m intimately involved with corn production in the traditional wheat belt. I eat, sleep, breathe, and concentrate on growing crops in the Northern Plains. I spent some time today with a grower who farms just over 50,000 acres.

In a continuous crop no-till situation in my corner of Spaceship Earth, there is absolutely NO substitute for commercial fertilizer. Fields often extend for miles without end. To ride across an individual field requires a full tank of gas on a four-wheeler. To switch these monstrous fields to composting/organic is unimaginable. It’d be like gardening the moon. Whatever one does with an acre, it must be done FAST, or not at all. There isn’t enough manure around here (except in pastures) to wad a shotgun with.

Last fall most of the acres in this area were planted with a minimum of fertilizer, or none at all. This is a first, and due to horrendous economics. (Cheap wheat, expensive fertilizer) There is some hope that acres will get top-dressed in March, but that’s generally inefficient, and time consuming.

My greatest fear is that humanity depends on our ability to fertilize everything in the Spring, which is spooky. In our part of the world, fall applications of nitrogen, with the drill, comprise most of the acres. We have WAY TOO MUCH work to do in a short period next spring. The logistics of moving endless tons of product is going to stress the system beyond its bounds.

If anybody is looking for a job next March, contact any commercial fertilizer dealer, next Spring will be one for the records if weather cooperates. If it doesn’t, well, whoops, there goes the Urban Poor.

I set out earlier this year to duplicate bits of the journey Chris McCandless took and part of that was following the harvest in South Dakota. I made it as far as Iowa and got some time in combining corn but I'd really like a chance to extend that trip a bit further north ... so if you need someone to drive nurse tanks back and forth next spring I'm game :-)

I drove nurse trucks one year about three years ago. I hauled dry fertilizer. The younger boys hauled anhydrous. What was left was the water wagons. That was the most dangerous. One blew off a bluff road last fall and ended up with the truck up in the trees.

Yep harvest time is when its elbows to assholes and it is nonstop. Even here where our hill fields are starshaped and circular. Our bottoms are straight and level though.

Harvest time is all 'getout'. Can be joyful or sad. Sad is not good.
Thats when you can literally 'lose the farm'.

I am glad this is finally starting to get some real focus. Can it go further? With the Sec of Ag just appointed I am not sure.


I don't think any organic wheat producers spread animal manure or commercial compost over vast areas. What they tend to do is use green manure rotations such as:

See: http://www.mt.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/organic/economic.html

The yields, protein content and economic returns are fine.

Hello Jason Bradford hope all is well,

I have no doubt that organic production can work in some parts of the country, but its a total wreck once you go west. I see the site from the NRCS, but the reason its so hard to find anybody that actually does this on a non-lab basis is that's the economics squeeze these guys out. The competition for land favors the no-till guy in a big way. The fallow and pea rotation can work, but mechanical tillage creates massive moisture loss, which is the biggest factor in that area.

Its simply no way to feed 6.8 billion people. Fallowing land can make sense when N fert is too expensive, but its ceratainly a production killer.

The largest organic wheat grower I know of is pretty small. (a couple thousand acres) He's still not small enough to make it work, because there's so many times more labor involved in what he does on a per acre basis than what is standard.

To deal with drought induced crop failure is one thing if you spend zilch time farming a given acre using standard methods, but its an entirely additional level of misery if you spend lots of time on it by using tillage devices etc.

This is why organic production is pretty rare in marginal areas without irrigation. Even more rare are folks that are successfull at it.

Manicuring a field with close human attention means very few acres per farmer, and every person who trys farming small scale using labor intense practices near the 100th meridian winds up broke. You can set your watch on it.

Is Montana out west?


If cultivated grains are too marginal in many places then permanent cover with grazing would likely be better.

The folks at WheatMontana are in the business of trading a big loss in per acre yield in exchange for value added vertical integration.

Can many acres duplicate that business model? Do their acres feed nearly as many people as does an acre from a no-till farmer? Not even close. The soil loss from erosion on land organically farmed around here is a fright. While the no-till guys leave crop residue on the surface, the tillage people, (burning loads of diesel) are killing earthworms and soil structure.

You can kill weeds with tillage if you like, but soil disturbance means moisture loss, and that results in reduced yields every time its tried. This is one of the biggest reasons why yields from no-till cropping sytems exceed the organic acres by several fold.

Should marginal acres adjust from wheat back to grazing land? Well, that's exactly what high fertilizer prices are doing. Putting these acres back to grazing might not feed nearly as many people as we used to feed, but its better than paying $900 for urea.

I'd rather eat organic and in fact I do as much as money and schedule allow, but that doesn't scale up. Even if we all suddenly swore off meat and high fructose corn syrup simultaneously cutting ammonia to zero on the same day would mean a whole lot of the world would starve.

There are plenty of examples where one smart, hardworking farm can make a go of being a boutique business such as being all organic, but you just can't do that in a 77,000 square mile state with 780,000 people (South Dakota, where CropDuster lives).

There are some 'foodies' over on DailyKos who are after me to check out Rodale, who appear to be doing quite well with organic methods ... but I bet what I'll find is that duplicating it would involve a second homesteading of the plains, complete with uncompensated land seizures that'd make Robert Mugabe proud. That's contempt prior to investigation - I do need to give them a call and see what's up, but as Dave Bradley has put it succinctly, it's a mass balance problem. If you don't put the nitrogen in it won't be coming out in the form of yield.

I'd rather eat organic and in fact I do as much as money and schedule allow, but that doesn't scale up.

You left off "fast enough". ;)

I think organic is capable scaling up, especially with significantly more research on methods and logistics. However, like solar, wind and nuclear, it is not capable of scaling up fast enough to replace fossil fuel dependence.

I'm the sort that believes food for many is better than driving to the mall for a few so lets hope that we put effort into a diversity of possible solutions. That means recognizing that energy production in wind rich areas might be best used locally for food rather than hauling it across the continent (so that we start building windmills before figuring out the transport) and more investing in research to grow food organically.

complete with uncompensated land seizures

At the rate we're going, the market will take care of this problem. As it becomes impossible to keep the land productive enough, the value will fall. Is buying cheap property in Detroit for eco-redevelopment an uncompensated land seizure? Ideally something to be avoided, but we haven't been good about avoiding bad things that conflict with our ideals lately.

Nice set of responses to my off the cuff remarks. It does seem to come down to scale, time and social dynamics.

I think this comment takes the prize for most boiled down content this month, if not this year.

We can ramp up renewable energy sources "fast enough" in both transport and residential/commercial (the two other big energy sinks) if we scale back energy waste "fast enough" ... however, establishing healthy soils and especially establishing healthy permacultures takes time. There is, for one thing, a certain pace that just cannot be forced no matter what, when relying on the re-establishment of a healthy soil ecology.

And we have been relentlessly pushing agrarian tenure and production in the wrong direction for five decades at least ... any set of institutions that deeply entrenched will engage in quite a bit of "rather fight than quit" activity before substantial progress can start.

And given how small a share of national income is required to keep farming operations themselves in business in our present economy, there is quite a lot of scope for long-term-foolish policies that paper over problems for the short term.

Which is why I argue for moving on all fronts that are steps in the right direction, without worrying overly much about debating which one will ultimately prove to be the most important. Indeed, even if the Stranded Wind initiatives in sustainable power sources for NH3 are nothing but temporary bridging technologies, its a critical bridge to have available.

Ha! Gotcha! Any ammonia infrastructure we build that is renewable is not just fertilizer - it's a perfect way to transport and time shift electric generation, too :-)


I had to re-read a couple of times; first time I've ever seen someone equate organic farming with tillage versus industrial farming=no-tillage. :)
Most of the forms of organic farming I know of (Fukuoka method, biointensive, permaculture, aigamo method etc.) all use no-till. Then I remembered from comparisons I've seen between organic vs regular farming is that they assume large-scale farms for both, with mechanical weeding for the organic farm.

What always surprised me is that most of the organic methods claim to achieve higher yields than regular modern farming methods. Masanobu Fukuoka claimed to get 33 bushels of rice/grain per quarter acre in the 70s. Similarly, Takao Furuno claims to get higher yields than conventional rice farmers using less effort, simultaneously raising ducks, fish and rice in the same field.

The interesting bit is they claim to achieve the higher yields without pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizer, and some even without much composting/manuring.

Can it scale? If these methods really work, then theoretically the effort they require could to some extent be automated. Eg mechanical planters that plant different types of crop simultaneously (like wheat+clover), or a contraption that makes Fukuoka's clay+dirt+grain-seedballs without the manual labor.

I must confess to a lack of agricultural experience, so the above could not be applicable to US agri realities at all, I wouldn't know. :)

The US population is 300m ... we don't have to feed 6.8b people. Indeed, with a shift down in feedlot finished beef and factory farmed park and chicken, the US has got massive spare productive capacity.

And of course, much of the financial incentives facing farmers are today established by government policy, so government intervention in shifting away from our current system would be a shift in targets of existing action rather than a new government intervention.

However, the transition from an oil-fed agriculture to a sustainable agriculture is a massive change, and rather than fighting over which approach is going to get us there, we should be pursuing all alternatives that get over a physical viability hurdle.

... I find it flabbergasting that the USA imports a larger percentage of N fertilizer than we do oil. ...

Ummmm, I think the "larger" above is in error (though the scale of the imports is flabbergasting). The EIA of the DOE totals up crude oil supply at

U.S. Crude Oil Supply & Disposition

for 2007 as 1,848,450 kbbls US production, 3,661,404 kbbls imports for a total of 5,509,854 kbbls. I get 66.5% imported oil.

But, using the ammonia numbers in the report above for 2007: 10.7 million tons domestic, 7.9 million tons imported, total of 18.6 millions tons, that would work out to ("only") 42.5% imported.

I did not see any numbers on imported urea, ammonium nitrate/phosphate/sulphate, etc., does that affect this number much?

BTW - if 42.5% of the ammonia used to grown corn (thus ethanol) is imported, then how much of the "domestic" ethanol is in fact "imported"?

Thanks SacredCowTipper et. al. for this ammonia report.

The USA does import a lot of urea, ammonium nitrate, and ammonium sulfate. In combo with NH3 these imports are just over 70%?? I guess I need to double check on that.


The U.S. Geological Service's Mineral Year Book has the goodies ... I will send you a link. I think sunnnv is correct - 66.5% oil, only a little over 40% of ammonia on the import side.

Very interesting post. The alternative methods for producing ammonia are perhaps feasible in the interim, but it seems to me that in the longer run we will have to do agriculture differently -- the energy and therefore the ammonia just won't be there.

I think it is important to figure on not having the energy abundance, in whatever form, (and therefore the metals and minerals) that we have now. And this means the industrial infrastructure won't be there. So technological improvements in the current industrial infrastructure aren't going to suffice in the long run.

I'm hoping some of the agriculturally savvy posters will discuss how/if we can (gradually) become ammonia independent. Night soil is recycled in many parts of the planet I know. I know diddly about agriculture, but I also know industrial monoculture agriculture has a limited horizon. And so do we if there is no alternative.


I think I can address this one. Today there are six and a half billion humans alive. A century ago there were a third that many and they were worried about the impending depletion of the nitrate mines in Chile. Totoneila has been right all along ... we tend to NPK or some real wrath of god type stuff descends.

So it isn't entirely fertilizer but a good slice of those four and a half billion new souls wouldn't be here without the efforts of our old friends Haber & Bosch. We're going back to the solar maximum of this planet and there is no escape from that, but how we conduct ourselves makes a dramatic difference on what that means.

Leave James Inhofe in charge and we get a 1490 standard of living and population to match. Pay attention to what Alan Drake says about transportation, what Totoneila and the crew listed on this report have to say about fertilizer, and we might just end up with a world that someone teleporting in from 1940 would recognize - a sensible sized house close to a trolley line with a garden out back and a coop full of chickens eating household scraps and grain grown with renewable fertilizer.

It isn't the hyper-individual life we have now, but all that's got us is diabetes, heart disease, and not knowing our neighbors.



What I question is whether several decades from now we'll have the energy (and other) infrastructure to do even what you envision.

If you're suggesting that we start this in a few decades I would say it'll be way too late. We may have already crossed a threshold on feeding everyone with the volatile ammonia prices this last year.

I'd humbly suggest that if we get rolling right now we can feed, warm, and transport everyone. We've got enough wind, solar, and hydro to get through with a decent (although radically different) lifestyle ... but only if we get our collective rear in gear and build the stuff we'll need while we have the chance.

We agree on getting started now. I don't think the "wind, solar, and hydro" will be enough for us to retain our current, energy intensive (even if improved), style of agriculture. What I am asking be contemplated is: what if I'm right? What's the best that can be done without the ammonia?

Two to three billion dead.

Global end of season wheat stocks per capita have been a consistent 70lbs/person for quite a while ... until three years ago when they dropped to about 40lbs/person. There were food riots last year all over the place. Some of those were the real deal, some just peaceful marches, but given the economic crash and credit freeze take a look at what CropDuster is saying - we're getting a taste of it in 2009 and it's really not funny, not even one little bit.

Newbie here. I read this article and comments, and your link "The Famine of 2009" at the Daily Kos. Some of this stuff is quite disturbing. How many people do you expect to die in the famine next year?

Here is a little chart - wheat harvest per capita is the high line, wheat stocks per capita is the low line. This is the figure from end of season and the capitas (capitains?) are global population. The wheat numbers came from the USDA Economic Research Service and the population numbers were cribbed from various sources and then simply fit to make up for the gaps. Annual population increase of 75,000,000 is a good number.

Now look at that curve from 2003 onward ... the shapes are the same but pay attention to where the last five years end up for harvest vs. stocks. This would appear to be the moral equivalent of the famous climate change hockey stick graph. Something is going to come of this but we won't know for sure until another year or two plays out. My guess is that the forensics will be tough - look at Zimbabwe now and Somalia from 1991 forward for a sense of how things will start to play out around the edges. We're insulated from the unstoppable flood of seawater here in the first class cabins of the Titanic ... at least for the moment.

This one will give you a sense of where the hammer will fall first ...

Thanks for the information. In your links, you wrote about the immediate threat of famine in 2009 due to low protein levels, lack of fertilizer and lack of propane. I'm particularly concerned about those near-term threats. Can you comment more on that? Do you foresee a major famine in 2009?


I wrote this slightly inflammatory bit for DailyKos today. I think it covers some of what you want to know.



But given that they are here, my own research into the persistance of nitrogen in the human body suggests that we could (and this would requires a major infrastructure to do so) recycle much of that nitrogen through the fertilization system simply by using human urine as a fertilizer. The risk factor is extremely low (except in places where tularemia is endemic, and even then it can be dealt with), and the output is remarkably consistent - that is, nitrogen can be cycled through the human body, through the agricultural system, and back out again quite a number of times with some loss, but if care is taken, with a fairly minimal losses.

I don't disagree with the overall conclusion, but I'd like to point out that nitrogen is not a single use input - the Haber Bosch nitrogen production that enabled 4 billion extra people can then be recycled into agriculture many, many times.

The infrastructure for "pee only" toilets, collection, and export could be a comparatively small investment in connecting cities with rural areas. Treated sewage sludge has more complex isssues, but will also have to be dealt with in the long term.

Again, no disagreement with your basic premise, but having spent quite some time researching the potential limiting factors in agriculture for a book on the subject, my general sense is that it is not the N but the P and K that are most likely to be limiting factors, assuming reasonable commonsense responses are taken (of course, that is a fairly big assumption ;-)).


Jewish Farmer, regarding usage of human manure.

I have read somewhere in the past about the various things passed in the feces of humans. Some very awfuls. In one instance is was a cyst like particle that was very bad for humans to be in contact with.

I do not have the source but the point was that human feces was not to be taken lightly. That like animals various entities do pass thru the alimentary canal and are expelled. For cattle and horses I do know that multiple types of worm eggs go thru the cycles after expelled in the manure. They hang on grass stems and are ingested by grazing completing the cycle.

Just what then are possible forms in the bowels and feces that are not healthy? Do you know offhand or have you studied it?

I assume that waste is waste and designed to pass off bad critters.

Maybe it was just hype that I read. Haven't tried to find it again. When I read something and try to google it again it seems that these go into a black hole and try as one might you can't ever get a search hit that appears to be the original.

Airdale-I am not of a scientific bent so do not try to make scientific sounding statements. I have alwasy been more of a 'technician' type...since I programmed(a art not a science)..and worked in labs as well in development and research as applied to computer technology...but no science thankyou

You'd want to run the manure through a biogas digester in any event, since releasing methane into the atmosphere is a more serious GHG on the one to two decade time scale than CO2.

Most parasites do not survive a biogas digester, but to be on the safe side, the slurry from a biogas digester containing human waste should not be used in a field in a year it is growing a crop destined for human consumption.

However, the greatest bulk of manure is from livestock ... I've never seen anything suggesting that the slurry from biogas digestion (which would contain almost all of the nitrogen) is a problem.

I've seen curves of parasite survival rates vs. time in a methane digester, but IIRC it was for a "mesothermal" process.  It would not surprise me to learn that temperatures too low would lead to more parasites surviving.

Is the heat from flat panel solar collectors sufficient to pasteurize digester effluent?

Drought to cut S.American soybean crops-Oil World

HAMBURG, Dec 23 (Reuters) - Drought in South American
soybean areas will result in smaller than expected crops in
countries such as Argentina and Paraguay in early 2009,
Hamburg-based oilseeds analysts Oil World forecast on Tuesday.

"The drought has reached alarming proportions in some key
areas," Oil World said.

"We consider it likely that the lower than expected
plantings, dryness and poor germination will result in a decline
in the Argentine soybean crop," it added.

It expected a decline of at least 0.5 to 1.0 million tonnes
from previous estimates of 49.50 to 50.0 million tonnes.

Argentina harvested 47.0 million tonnes in early 2008.

"Paraguayan soybean production is expected to plunge to a
three year low of 5.4 to 5.8 million tonnes in early 2009, down
steeply from 6.8 million tonnes a year earlier," it said.

Weather in Brazil was also causing major concern although
Oil World did not give a new production estimate.

"The situation (in Brazil) is critical and could get worse
if conditions remain dry in December," it said. "Current
forecasts only point to beneficial rainfall in the northern and
eastern oilseed and grain growing areas."

As I recall 40% of Brazilian electricity is hydropower. They're busy turning the Amazon basin into savannah and they can kiss that piece of renewable energy goodbye - the rainfall patterns will change dramatically.

So why aren't they growing all those interesting indigenous beans? Aren't soybeans from Asia? This stuff then feeds livestock etc??

I understand you are trying to explain important issues to a towny like me, but I have little sympathy for big agro politics. I thought Quinoa, Potatoes etc would keep starvation away in S America.

Just random thoughts, I have zero real agro knowledge..

I answered this upthread in terms of statistics and I'll expand upon it here.

There is a way for us to be that feeds a lot more people with a lot less, but we can't snap our fingers and make the change. We're talking huge social and geographic dislocation attached to a tremendous slide in what we now call standard of living. Cars, malls, and little roadside shops with 90%+ HFCS drinks on their shelves are not my image of the good life, but they sure are popular with Americans today.

And yes, we're the center of the universe - 5% of all humans using 25% of all energy directly and outsourcing another 10% of the usage to Chinese who make our unnecessary plasticrap.

Thanks SCT, cropduster, others for the work.

I haven't much time today, but would like to add one comment.

I agree with your thoughts upthread and here on how critical moisture is. And that at ~45 bu grain/capita worldwide, things are tight. but that said, no till first made it's debut in the fields around 1980. If we look at 70's yields and production, we can get an idea of production if we switch back to conventional tillage and pasture. It would force a crop shift east, as you conclude, but we might be better off than trying for maximum moisture control now, then get hit with the inevitable future droughts. Trying to build more resiliency into the practice. Does leave a gaping hole with erosion, I wouldn't want to see those old soil loss rates again. And I would agree that yields would not satisfy present world demand.

Forty two pounds at the end of season, not forty two bushels. That is one fifth of the annual harvest or roughly seventy days supply.

You didn't show how much natural gas would be saved.

Ammonia reaction N2+3H2-->2NH3

For natural gas CH4 +.5O2-->2H2 +CO(which is further combusted to CO2 to provide heat for the H-B reaction.

So to make 90 million (global) tons of NG based ammonia you would need 64 million tons of natural gas ~2.8 Tcf of natural gas(world NG production is 100 Tcf). In the US, where almost all ammonia is from NG that would save .34 Tcf of gas or about 1.5% of US total.

So 1 ton of ammonia would require 44000 SCF of natural gas costing $220. The cost of natural gas ammonia is ~$200 per ton--so I maybe a bit high on the amount of energy.

For coal C + H20--> H2 + CO(for reaction heat)
So to make 38 million (global) tons of coal based ammonia
you would use something like 70 million tons of coal, assuming the carbon content of coal is ~50% average).
World production of coal is about 6 billion tons.

So 1 ton of ammonia would require 2 tons of coal costing $100.

With wind electrolysis you'd need ~10 MWh per ton of ammonia for H2 gas plus a few more tons for Haber-Bosch reaction heat, so 11 million tons of ammonia would take ~110 Twh of electricity(the report also says 110 Twh); using wind energy that's 33,000 1MW of wind turbines operating an average of 3000 hours per year. Currently the US has 20,000 MW of wind turbines.

So 1 ton of ammonia world require 10 Mwh of wind electricity
costing $1000 at 10 cents per kwh. Cheap energy is hurting our transition to sustainability. We need a BTU/carbon tax.

Ammonia production could be a way to relieve some of the wind/solar intermittency problem. Half the time wind turbines
don't produce meaningful power but 10% of the time they produce gobs of energy but that would require more electrolyzer capacity.

FWIW, I really like this report

Dave Bradley will give you a what for on calculations as soon as he notices this, but one bit I can offer is this - that hydrogen being stripped off comes from ... a steam methane reformer. And steam doesn't come for free ;-)

Per John Holbrook:

It's based on the fact that the industry standard is 33 to 35 MMBtu of natural gas to make a ton of ammonia.

Me bad.
2.8 Tcf/90E6 tons= 31MMBTU/ton, not 44MMBTU. :-o

But surely some of hydrogen comes from methane?
CH4+H20-->3H2+CO (steam reformer reaction)
is another way because that doesn't work with the CO2 number of 180 million tons in the post for 90 million tons of ammonia; 90E6 x 44/34= 116E6 tons of CO2 versus 90E6 x 1.5 x 44/34= 174E6 tons CO2. Steam reformation would make the amount of gas used drop; 90E6 x 16/34 x 2000 x 22.4=1.9 Tcf, 1.9 Tcf/90E6=21000scf/ton of ammonia which is too low.
To make 48E6 tons of steam(90E6 x 18/34) would take something like 200 bcf of natural gas (48E6 x 3000scf/ton)
which isn't that much energy on (1.9 Tcf +.2 Tcf)/90E6=23 MMBtu/ton which is still too low for the industry standard.
IOW, I don't know why industry is so inefficient at 34 MMBTU. :)

It still leaves me wondering how much non-renewable natural gas would be saved?

As I said, this is all good stuff but 'how about the bottom line?' How can the US do ANYTHING as long as energy is so cheap and everything we get from overseas is even cheaper?


The 33.5 MBtu methane (about 1475 lbs) per ton of NH3 provides both hydrogen, heat and (from the heat) mechanical energy needed to do the reaction. The compressors for a world scale plant need between 30 to 50 MW of power (as st.eam) to pressurize things to 140 atm of pressure. One ton of NH3 needs only 353 lbs of H2, after all

But I don't get 30 to 50 Mwh/ton compression.
Assuming an efficiency of 50% over isothermal I get 1Mwh/ton of ammonia.

2500 x ln(140) x (1E6/2 x353/2000 + 1E6/14 x (1-353/2000)) x .277E-6= 500 kwh/ton/50% = 1Mwh per ton for compression.

1 Mwh per ton x 3.412/.33 efficiency of electricity generation = 10 MMBTU per ton.

If steam reforming is at 21 MMBTU (above) plus another 2 MMBTU(above) for making steam plus 10 MMBTU compression , I get 33 MMBTU per ton.

I hope that's right because it happens to adds up! :)

Yes, about one megawatt per thousand tons annually. I will look more closely ... did I misstate that?

Renewable Ammonia hits very close to home for me because fertilizer is far and away our largest crop input in $$. I view wheat and corn production here near the 100th Meridian as the “Stripper Wells/Tar Sands” of agriculture. We are the marginal, high cost producer of grain. We are a swing producer, responding in large way to small price signals.

A mistake folks discussing commodity prices often make is to disregard the marginal producer, when in fact; it’s the marginal producer whom determines prices. I’m not the greatest trader in the world, (just ask my broker) but I’ve hedged production for years using futures contracts, and the veterans tell me that extra 10% of corn supply we bring to the market makes FAR more than a 10% difference in price. At times, in can make a 50% difference in price.

Prices of grains, like oil, are set at the margin, with the price of the first bushel setting the day’s price for all bushels. Of course the last bushel is never for sale at any price, so those few extra bushels make an enormous difference in daily price fluctuations.
The reason I’m rambling is because so much of what is written about agriculture has to do with the low cost producers in the central corn-belt. The folks there in the steadier rainfall regions have little risk of crop failure, and will plant a crop to maximize yields regardless of market conditions. The farms most people associate with are “base production”, you can count on it whether ammonia is $300/ton or $1,200/ton. This is the exact opposite of the way we operate out here in “Next year country”.

A close personal friend who farms over 30,000 acres in New Underwood, SD pulls fertilizer off rail cars at his own grain elevator. Last fall he didn’t order one car of MAP or urea, due to the exorbitant prices. He will not fertilize his wheat this year at all. He will employ “Summer Fallow” to save on fertility costs, but this method merely mines organic matter, and is a short term band-aid. At any rate, idling half the farm to fallow means half as much wheat is now planted on his farm than he planted just two years ago.

To wholesale abandon nitrogen application on marginal land (as we've done in many cases) will absolutely drop production enough to raise wheat prices above the levels that many in the world can afford to pay.

The low cost producers in the corn-belt will ALWAYS do the heavy lifting, but it’s the marginal production on the fringes that will determine the price. Marginal production means minimal human contact, and vast acres per person due to miniscule per acre returns. Our system of agriculture needs cheap ammonia or we immediately shut down.

This factoid caught my attention:

"The total 332 million tons of emissions are 7.3 % of the estimated 4,500 million tons of worldwide emissions of CO2."

The citation of 4.5 GTons of CO2 doesn't appear to jibe with what I recall seeing; that the world emits about 8 GTons per year of carbon, which corresponds to ca. 27 GTons of CO2. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_dioxide_emissions

What you may be referring to is that nearly half of the carbon emitted is removed from the atmosphere by the ocean and ecosystems. Is that where the 4,500 million tons comes from? It's a distinction between gross and net emissions. See discussion here: http://books.google.com/books?id=OkCnnMiXFMUC&pg=PA70&lpg=PA70&dq=gross+...

I use the net emissions number - the total emissions are 27 GTons but only 4.5 Gtons stay in the atmosphere ... at least for the moment. The ocean carbon sink is fixing to overflow but for the moment that number seems good.

Is there a compelling reason to go with gross rather than net emissions? If this is a standard everyone else adheres to I'll fix it in our publications, otherwise I'll just let it ride with the occasional explanation like this one.

I think it needs to be clear if you are talking about net or gross and carbon or carbon dioxide. Above I believe you mean "total emissions are 8 GTons but only 4.5 stay in the atmosphere." The 27 GTon is CO2, not plain old C...confusing!

I think the problem with net is that it under describes actual emissions. Nature is under assault from these emissions and getting them down to a safe zone means getting rid of all of them, and creating carbon sinks that work even better that the ones we currently have.

I noticed the 4.5 Gtons, too, and scratched my head.

It definitely is standard to use total emissions, not net, unless you are discussing it in a context of carbon credits. And even if you add "net" in your paper the natural question will be "net of what?" since nowhere do you discuss either carbon credits or carbon sinks.

I would recommend that you switch to gross numbers.

This is an interesting post, on a worthy topic.

I was struck by the notion (see the first paragraph) that grain production needs to keep up with a growing population. I don't happen to view it this way. The population only grows because of such excess grain production. See this paper, for example:

with the following quoted from the abstract: "Contrary to the widely held belief that food production must be increased to feed the growing population, experimental and correlational data indicate that human population growth varies as a function of food availability. By increasing food production for humans, at the expense of other species, the biologically determined effect has been, and continues to be, an increase in the human population."

Next, let's look at where the grain currently being produced goes. I offer this graphic, a flow chart of the U.S. food system. It is based on decade old data, but the situation is similar today. About half of grains are fed to domestic (U.S.) animals, primarily ruminant livestock.

These animals grow just as well, if not better, on grass. Just takes them a few months longer to do so. The feedlot industry absorbs cheap grain and gives us lousy meat.

My preference: take about half of U.S. grain producing areas out of production and put them into pasture. The benefits include carbon sequestration, feedlot beef extinction, and less draw down on ancient aquifers in areas of marginal production anyhow.

Your suggestions are highly inappropriate in the eyes of big ag as it is run today ... but I'd like to think I earn the name I use here, so I'll wade right in.

If we can truly cut 50% of our grain production by going largely vegetarian then we're free of the need for imported ammonia. This is already happening a bit as meat prices climb. I agree on the crappy meat we're getting these days - I don't want drug resistant bacteria due to poor feedlot practices but it's what we're facing.

The bigger picture here is that you're suggesting people need to starve. I intellectually get that this is going to happen due to population overshoot but I have two gradeschoolers and my girlfriend has three in late highschool or college. I can't see a path forward that doesn't lead to at least a few of them getting drafted in the context of keeping a lid on things as our overpopulation unwinds :-(

I wouldn't say that I am implying people starve. Enough grains were produced in 2008 to feed about twice the global population. The world doesn't need us to produce so many grains.

And I am not talking about going vegetarian either. Eat beef (or lamb, etc.) that only eats grass. The pounds of beef produced from one acre of good pasture is the same as that produced from one acre of grain. However, the growth rate on grain is accelerated so the total biomass per year would be reduced in a grass only system. Not by a whole lot though. So I am simply recommending replacing about as much grain acreage as is fed to beef with pasture that can still be fed to beef.

I think the average American eats something like twice the recommended amount of protein each day. A bit less meat would make us healthier as a population, not starvation.

I am not in the business of growing animals (well, I have 6 hens) so those who are can now tar and feather me via this forum. Indeed, I may have stepped on a few Sacred Cows...and I love your name.

The problem with beef or lamb that eats only grass is that the meat has a gamey flavor, and Americans have developed a preference for the flavor of animals that are fed corn. That could be unlearned of course, but it is something that everyone needs to be aware of..

That being said, one could cut back the corn quite substantially and only feed them corn right at the end (i.e. finishing), and the flavor should be about the same.

Or they could go vegetarian..

The older folks in my family all like some buffalo or deer in their chili just for that stronger taste. The kids like bland hamburgers though.

I think if they went a month without meat, anything they got would taste pretty goood!

I buy beef from a local rancher and he doesn't put his animals in a feed lot (at least the ones he sells here) but he does give them a tiny bit of grain, like you say, at the end.

As Aaron Newton and I were researching _A Nation of Farmers_, and trying to figure out how many people the world could actually feed, and under what conditions, we kept coming bang up against two limiting factors.

The first is the uncertainty about the net impact of climate change on agriculture - if, for example, the GISS drought index estimats for the US are correct, even the US Midwest is going to struggle against drought in the coming decades on a large scale. Many of the areas being opened for agriculture by warming - Siberia and parts of Canada - are quite dry areas, and depending on whose analysis is correct, we may find that world grain stocks drop dramatically.

The second, and larger question, and related to Jason's point, is the question of equity. Without postulating a perfect world, where all happily dance hand in hand, there simply is no way to address the starvation question without addressing the question of equity - for example, even ignoring SCT's excellent essay, there compelling reasons why trying to increase grain yields on the best land in the US, for example, is far less effective that exporting growing techniques, drought adapted seedstock and fertilizers to places like Africa and Southeast Asia, where yields could be dramatically increased with comparatively minimal effort, rather than engaging in trying to push up already high yields another bit.

Moreover, such a strategy would put food where it is needed - the US doesn't particularly need to grow more grain, especially if meat was grassfed (converting people's tastes to grassfed meat is only a matter of time and some Food Channel tv support - food taste shifts happen pretty quickly - look at the speed from which sushi went from "bait" to "in every grocery store case." ;-)), and simply not allowing cars to compete with hungry people.

Ultimately, I don't think there's a way around the food problem that doesn't come up to the question of equity - people are not starving now from a shortage of food, and the odds are excellent that they will not do so even in the future for some time. The question is whether we can deal with the equity question from even a practical standpoint - the point beint that neither a stable economy nor a stable political climate can be created without some kind of overarching strategy to deal with equity.

This isn't meant to diminish the value of this exercise, but to suggest that in some ways, purely technical analyses can't get us to the reality of not letting people starve.


Right now we count dollars and watch the DJIA & GDP. I think only consumable calories and accessible BTUs count going forward ... which makes me a lunatic, or a socialist, or a realist, or maybe some grim combination of the three.

Someone once remarked that if all dutch would skip eating meet one day of the week, Holland would achieve it's Kyoto targets instantly. I don't know if there was numbercrunching backing that statement, but I readily believe it.

Less chemical fertilizer needed to grow the feed, less wheatfields required (space for greenery), less methane exhaustion, less aquatic deadzones.

Last Feb the price of Durum Wheat in Carrington, ND rose to $30 per bushel. Durum wheat is not traded on any exchange. Three weeks later, the price of Spring Wheat in Minneapolis rose above $20 per bushel.

The days-to-cover global wheat inventories were the tightest in generations.

Nobody is America starved as a result, but can the same be said for the Urban Poor in many parts of the world? Did $20 wheat rise above somebody's ability to pay? Farmers in marginal acres pulled out the stops to increase production by increasing fertilizer rates via top-dressing, and extensive use of fungicides. This in turn lead to the largest wheat crop harvest in USA history. Starvation was averted, but fertilizer stocks were drawn down. By fall, we had cheap wheat but crazy expensive fertilizer.

Wheat is of course a fungible commodity, and the USA is the world's largest producer of wheat, and at minimum the number two exporter. The USA producing less wheat means a collapse in exports, which would impact importing countries with a sledgehammer.

In 1973, Nixon imposed an export moratorium on soybeans. Did the average American notice a differance at the grocery store? Probably not, but millions in Bangladesh noticed, and still haven't forgiven that stupid blunder.

Renewable Ammonia use in the USA is critical for the survival of poor folks in importing countries.

Cropduster, that is presently the case, but since renewable artificial nitrogen is not an instantaneous solution, it is worth asking whether the dependency on US wheat crops *must* continue into the future. And the answer to that is complicated, and uncertain - it depends on a lot of variables. But in the time needed to create a renewable nitrogen infrastructure, it is also possible you should shift food production back to nations that invested heavily in export production. The correct answer to what we should be doing is almost certainly "some of both" but there is no question that reliance on US grain exports is something we can also do something about - and should, because nitrogen is not the only bottleneck in food production and delivery we face in the coming decades.


Please examine my not quite hysterical diary on DailyKos from today regarding wheat stocks. There are some interesting graphs in there ...


Something that concerns me about inorganic fertilizer is that it permits continuous cropping, whereas organic methods require that field crops be rotated with nitrogen fixing legumes.

One key difference is what happens to the resulting soil carbon. When legume cover crops are used, soil carbon is added along with the nitrogen, potentially maintaining a mass balance of carbon, especially with no/low till methods.

However, when continuous cropping is allowed by inorganic fertilizer then the soil carbon more readily be lost. When the soil organisms have plenty of available nitrogen they feed on soil carbon.

It would be great if anyone with a background in soil biology and agronomy can chime in here.

Might biochar additions help mitigate the loss of soil carbon even with continuous cropping and inorganic N?

My B.S. is in agronomy, and I maintain my certification as a crop advisor. I work every day in this field.

You've touched on a lot of good notes, specifally the interaction between carbon and nitrogen. Its the ratio that counts, and the stover from each crop has a differant C:N ratio.

Below are rough C:N ratios for various crops;

Corn = 20:1

Wheat = 25:1

soybeans = 10:1

lentils 5:1

sawdust = 200:1

If one incorporated a lot of sawdust into a soil, the result would be horrific nitrogen defficiency in plants for years on end. The reason is that the soil microbes will immobilize the nitrogen, meaning they tie it up and use it to break down the carbon in the sawdust. While they are doing this, the free N in the soil solution goes to microbes rather than the crop.

Ultimately the nitrogen immobilized gets released back into soil solution once the carbon is broken down into organic matter.

Carbon credits can be captured by no-till farmers, because in the absence of tillage, less carbon is released into the atmosphere. This is why no-till fields have higher levels of O.M. over time.

Meanwhile, the act of tillage exposes the organic matter (O.M.) to oxygen, and a vast amount of CO2 is released as a result.

This is why the No-Till organizations and the NRCS are working closely with the carbon sequestration folks.

Of course leaving the soil in its natural state by avoiding tillage means killing weeds via herbicides.

The key to avoiding immobilization of N is to band apply the nitrogen instead of broadcasting it. For example, placing the fertilizer in a stream using a coulter/disc that merely slices a narrow slit in the ground 2 inches beside the row of seed.

To accomplish that efficiently one needs to apply the N at planting using a drill/planter set up properly.

The advantage of this banding method vs broadcast is the fert comes in contact with much less residue from the previous crop. The fert in that "hot band" is concentrated, so it over-feeds the microbes relative to available residue, leaving more for the crop.

Another benifit is the root exposure directly to the band means more fert efficiency vs broadcast.

This is very good at addressing a lot of the standard C:N issues. However Biochar is not intended to be organic carbon. I'm not capable of getting into a scientific discussion, but from a high level the intent is to provide nearly permanent soil structure using the carbon char as a base. The char structure provides enormous surface area for microbes, water and other nutrient retention. The carbon char structure is not supposed to chemically react with the organic processes that it houses.

I'm not saying that it works as good as claimed. I'm just pointing out that there is potential here for Biochar to do something to improve things and so far what you have posted does not negate that.

Just thought I'd add something here on continous crop vs fallow. You are correct that continous cropping systems require more nitrogen applications than does fallow.

Of course every time a farm goes from fallow to continous cropping, they need to build lots more storage to hold the extra grain.

The folks who back no-till production the most are wildlife groups such as Ducks Unlimited, and Pheasants Forever. The reason these organizations donate to further no-till research is because it improves wildlife habitat vs tearing up the land with tillage.

A winter wheat field which was no-tilled into standing/undisturbed spring wheat stubble/stover using a zero-disturbance drill is a sanctuary for nesting birds in the Spring.

While the tilled/organic winter wheat on April 15th looks like a lawn, the no-till field still has all the previous crop's straw standing 2 feet tall. This is great wildlife cover.

In addition to saving moisture by not exposing soil to the sun, the standing stubble catches snow, which is huge. As one harvests a winter wheat field, you can watch the yield monitor jump 50-100% when you cross an area that had a large snow bank sit on it the previous winter.

Unfortunately for the farmer using tillage to control weeds, his snow blows off his field and winds up in a fencerow, a gully, or in a happy no-tiller's field.

No-till doesn't work eveywhere because saving lots of moisture is a double edged sword. In high rainfall areas the big challenge is to get into soggy fields, so no-till compounds their problem.

The soil conservation folks introduced no-till to stop erosion. Undisturbed crop residue provides soil cover and reduces the energy of rain drops, while the soil is held together via dead roots.

A return back to the old tillage days in many areas would wear out the soil pretty fast while hemmoraging yields in the process.

This is why Renewable Ammonia is the most important thing anyone tried to accomplish ever. Farming efficiently starts with ammonia.

Thanks! I understand what you are getting at: no-till often means the need for herbicides, but has the advantage of fewer tractor passes, better soil organic matter accumulation and resulting ecosystem benefits.

One thing I'd like to consider. Is anyone experimenting with organic no-till methods for grains?

I'd heard of experimentation using sweet clover or hairy vetch and certain wheat varieties in a rotation or co-planting no-till approach with good results. With appropriate rotations, I think you do not have full-fallow years.

  • http://www.sdnotill.com/Field_Facts_wheat_cover_crop.pdf
  • No till sowing is not something new. I sowed all my fields down with a no-till seeder back about 15 years ago. I did have to burn down(chemically) the huge amount of Johnson grass that came up after I kicked the row crops off my farm. They were just putting down enough to keep the johnson grass down but not enough to kill the enormous understory of rhizomes.

    I stood on the hood of my large tractor and still couldn't see over the tops of the Johnson grass heads.

    I had to both spray and use a mopping applicator and finally got a stand of pristine Orchard Grass and Kenland Red Clover. I was tired of seeing my land abused by row cropping,,no-till or otherwise and there are some downsides to no-till...as for instance the one I gave above.

    Hairy vetch as I have posted often on DBs is an excellent cover crop and nitrogen legume fixer. Rates at the top almost.

    There are also other types of tillage besides no-till and plowing.

    Also I doubt anyone uses a moldboard plow anymore. We para-vane and chisel and sometimes I used a sub-soiler for compaction.

    Also we do have to run rolling harrows and other forms of harrows over the fields after disking due to certain types of soil and the proclivities of creek bottom and river bottom ground. Its unique BUT never requires N,P or K as I have also pointed out. Down here we have a spring rise (most time) and a fall rise(most times) and the sediment leaves the nutrients behind. Most of the time that is. And the moisture means the crops do well but bottom ground work is almost an art form...not like 'hill' ground at all. Soil can sour if not worked right. You also have to plant at the right moisture level..and so its knowledge that gets you here.

    No one is going to just walk out of the city or a full time job and buy a farm and start rowcropping. Rare if they could make it.

    Even cattle is tough if you have no background. So folks coming out to the farms for jobs from the cities? Iffy IMO. Went you have to run from sunup to sunset and nighttime too, there is little time for schooling and a person not knowing what they are doing can put a valuable piece of equipment in the shop. Some parts costs thousands of dollars.

    I was overseeing rebuilding the head on a combine engine. Cummins it was and a worker decided he knew how to torque heads. He ruined it. Talk about a pissed farmer. Talk about money just pissed away?

    I had to block my ears and I was in the Navy once upon a time.

    So put a $7/hr guy in a $200,000 dollar piece of equipment or in a situation where he can lose a leg or arm easily? Uhhhhh no.


    deleted duplicate

    Hi Jason

    There are some very impressive no-till, organic crop productions taking place in the US (along the Can-US border) and around the world. See http://www.mandakzerotill.org/ for a starting place. I'd encourage you and others to look at the work of Microbiologists like Dr. Elaine Ingham at the Soil Foodweb (www.soilfoodweb.com). A discussion of human-made forms of in-organic N is only part of the picture. There are ancient and robust forms of N cycling by Microbobes. One of the main microbes involved in "fixing" N from the atmosphere is from the mutualist Rhizobia bacteria. People here have referred to the crop rotation of Legumes. Rhizobium bacteria penetrate the roots of the Legume (or more generally the family Fabaceae or Leguminosae) and form various shapes of Ammonium (NH4) fixing nodules on the roots. There is another non-Legume N fixer actinomycete bacteria, Frankia. Its less common than the rhizobium-legume association but important for plants that colonize stressed N poor sites in temperate regions (think alders, bayberry, autumn olive). in gereal, the bacteria exchange their atmospherically "fixed" N for the plant produced photosynthetic C. There are studies that show the plant, by its secretion of photosynthetic C, actually controls the mutual relationship. Through aerobic decomposition of these high N to C Fabaceae plants we get immobilized organic N forms by a nitrification set of other bacteria that transform through enzymes the Ammonium (NH4) to organic Nitrite (NO2) to Nitrate (NO3). And, there are still others that push N out of the soil: the so-called de-nitrificaton bacteria. The microbiological-chemical forms of nutrient cycling have been doing quite well before we came along with till and inorganic fertilizers. (Its interested to look at the global depletion of soil organic matter as paralleling the introduction of deep season repetitive tillage and inorganic fertilizer use.) I am not saying we don't need to add elements (like Fe, Cal, etc) back to the soil to compensate for our removal/harvest of crops/produce. Instead we might think of adding microbial innoculants with some organic fertilizer (good compost) to the fields. These soil critters go to the plant roots because that's where their plant produced photosynthetic C starch bacteria food is. Soil bacteria (and fungi) cycle mineralized N (S, P, K, Cal, Fe, etc.) for us right ON or INSIDE the plant root or rhizosphere surface. We Can never approach the microbial efficiency of delivery here. Instead of pouring our human made mineralized N somewhere in the general vicinity of the plants let the bacteria produce the N forms and exchange for food right on or inside of the plant roots. A problem with adding inorganic fertilizers to soil is that we can either kill beneficial bacteria (or Fungi) or we make them (and the plant roots) "lazy." They get the N they need so why do the work? Over time in a inorganic field we are killing off the robust soil microbe populations and selectively breeding lazy nutrient cyclers as the guys hanging around.

    I guess the point my post here is that our production of inorganic fertilizers requires a great energy input, our delivery to plant roots isn't very efficient compared to microbial cycling, and we're diminishing/killing the microbes who've been doing for us all along. It seems as though the discussion here sometimes pits the large inorganic fertilizer operations VS the small organic boutique farms. As I mentioned above see the work of Dr. Elaine Ingham at soilfoodweb.com. She's been working with a 1.5 million farm in South Africa: no fertilizer, no herbicides/fungicides/pesticides, an 10% increase in production, an increase in measurable produce nutrient density, and a dramatic reduction in water irrigation use. Also, a classic text on what happens in the soil food web is: Eldor Paul's "Soil Microbiology, Ecology and Biochemistry."

    She also works with U.S. grain farmers. I've seen some impressive before and after and with and without treatment photos.

    Thanks for the links.

    Hello Weather, hope you are having a super holiday.

    I've been to the North Dakota/Manitoba conferance you listed, and they advocate herbicide use for weed control.

    Downy Brome and kochia are TOUGH weeds, and the basic problem is this, the seeds of these plants are distributed in the top 1" of soil.

    Kochia is from the tumble weed, and every field regardless of cropping sytem has them in wheat country, as long as a neighbor has them.

    This is a fact, if you grow annual crops in ND, MT, SD, NE, KS, OK, or TX, then you absolutely battle kochia on EVERY SINGLE acre. There is NO exception. If you grow annual crops west of HWY 83 in those states, you can add cheatgrass and russian thistle.

    There are two practical ways to kill a kockia plant on a big field, you can use tillage, or you can spray it.

    Tillage is a CO2 releasing fiend that generates record amounts of soil erosion.

    If somebody ever invented a way to annual crop no-till on a large scale without any herbicides, they'd be richer than Bill Gates overnight. Farmers HATE to spray for weeds. It costs a fortune, and it puts money into the pockets of the people we don't like.

    Farmers only spray weeds, cuz hand pulling weeds is out of the question, and tilling them out is utterly disasterous in some areas.

    Hi Cropduster - hope you're also having a super holiday. I just spent the last several days sick with a nasty cold.

    I completely agree with your above assessment re herbicides in wheat country. For the areas you mentioned and the weeds you cite no-till and herbicide is the only way to go. However, not all areas and Crops face the same conditions and can go no-till and no-herbicide. From the standpoint of maintaining a healthy soil food web, IF you spray herbicides then you must do a follow-on of re-inoculating your field's microbiology. The herbicide will suppress certain microbial populations and therefore diminish biological nutrient cycling. In the case of the areas you mention above Dr. Ingham has worked with some of the no-till farmers (who spray) by post-amending and repairing the field after spraying with Actively Aerated Compost Tea (AACT) spraying. The AACT is the reinoculate containing trillions of soil microbes intended to repair the herbicide depleted microbe field populations. IF you spray, you want to get the soil microbe pop. back up to maintain your various nutrient (N,P,K,etc.) cycling.

    Thinking about intermittent electricity from wind farms. Storage of electricicy has always been a hurdle. Electrolyzers are off cause less economical when connected to an intermittent power source but elecrolyzers requires low personel and is belived to work well although not optimal when the power source is intermittent. One possibility is to have many units at same location. The numbers of units in use are then dependent upon availiable power.
    The next process which produces ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen is more dependent on a not intermittent production.
    If producers of hydrogen are spaced along a dedicated hydrogen pipeline then producers of hydrogen loads the pipeline with hydrogen at a rate which varies by availiable power. The users of hydrogen extracts at desired rate. The preassure difference in the pipeline will move the availiable hydrogen in the most desired direction. If the pipeline has a sufficient lenght and dimmension it becomes the ideal solution as it combines both storage and transportation of hydrogen.
    This sceme could make wind as an electricy source more economical. Wind could become a peak load procucer of electricity rather than the oposite. When peak electricity is needed just switch off the elecrolyzers the hydrogen stored in pipline will still supply the ammonia producersfor some time.

    Electrolyzers don't care about on/off much but the finance guys hate on this sort of stuff bigtime - "What do you mean it costs $X but you only use it 40% of its capacity?!?!?!"

    We've thought long and hard on this and we're not the only ones. Getting solid state ammonia synthesis into production will fix an amazing array of problems for us and the rest of the world along with :-)

    40% for onshore wind is kind of high. Wikipedia gives total install wind capacity in US to 16.8GW by the end of 2007 and 11.6GW by the end of 2006, so the average for 2007 must be around the middle - 14.2GW.

    These wind turbines produced 32,140 GWh, divided by 365*24 = 3.67 GW continuously.

    So the average utilization of wind power in US is:
    3.67 / 14.2 = 25.8%

    AFAIK good onshore locations can get to around 30% or a bit better , but 40% is already looking at offshore installations.

    The capacity factor for winds near my home on the Iowa/Minnesota border is 34%. Sites in the Dakotas are much higher. I pick the 40% number to keep the narrative flowing - easy to do the math on a 2.5MW turbine. I suppose I could say a 3.0MW setup and 33% but then the wind guys would be scratching their heads and trying to figure out which model I meant ...

    "The nitrogen is free for the taking from the air........"

    but isn't the nitrogen separated from the air by cryogenic separation ? that requires a lot of ng (or other energy) for compression. nitrogen injection for eor used to be(and that was a long used to be ago) required about 1 mcf of ng to generate 3 mcf of pure nitrogen.

    here is a reference for cryogenic (liquid) nitrogen from wiki:


    I believe air is injected into the hydrogen stream to strip oxygen from the air as water.

    "Pure" nitrogen is not obtained cryogenically, but rather by sacrificing a portion of the hydrogen feedstock.

    huh ? are you just making that up ? stripping h2 from ng and then oxidizing it doesnt sound very efficient. for now, i will go with sct's response below.

    It was late at night when that was posted - I'll guess that the poster was getting at the H2 stream clean up. Electrolyzers produce mostly hydrogen but there is some oxygen in the stream. This is cleaned up by a catalyst that encourages a menage a trois involving a pair of hydrogen and one oxygen atom, then there is a (cryogenic?) drying of the H2 stream.

    No, I did not make it up, I had read it somewhere a while back.

    After reading around a bit more today, I see that liquefaction is the preferred method of N2 purification. However, combustion is also viable commercially. In a natural gas process, the combustion reagents to remove O2 from air could be CH4, H2, and/or CO depending on equilibria and process specifics.

    90% of energy used in a hydroelectric powered ammonia operation is bound up in the getting of hydrogen from water. You're correct to notice that nitrogen extraction requires energy but it's a well understood, efficiently executed sort of thing.

    per michael pollan 20 acre avg. for corn prior to fert/hybrids for corn.

    from here;


    25/acre pre fert/hybrids.

    so, much more dire than u'r ;

    'The corn crop is raised primarily for its starch content and protein is not closely tracked. A sudden reduction in ammonia based fertilizer input here will have the same yield effect as is seen with wheat – a sudden plunge to about half of the current average.'

    probably the yield of 1/2 is temporary & would revert to the avg. that held for yrs. & yrs. [see above link] & pre fert pollan says for corn only 2 yrs production out of 5 due to necessary rotation.

    very very important post & work. thanks..

    It's certainly a brilliant start to investigating the subject. However even in the limited context of TOD it is only a first cut. Basically it appears that you set out to find out how much nitrogen must be gotten somehow to keep current US grain production going. Vital information, but assuming that diesel, propane and bunker fuel for the grain ships will remain available in roughly current volume and pricing. Those are probably not good assumptions.

    Then comes the next set of questions: The ethanol subsidy and feedlot animal culture. If it is so important to maintain production to feed the third world, why feed subsidized grain, grain bought for less than the cost of production, to animals? How many tons of ammonia wouldn't be needed just by converting the equivalent of the ethanol and feedlot grain acreage back to pasture? What about water? For all the talk about no-till here, there's also a lot of irrigated grain production.

    And finally, is it good public policy at all to maintain the current grain production model? Yes, I've heard "feed the world" for 50 years. More recently I've been hearing about the destruction of third world agriculture and migration to the cities, just in time for peak oil.

    I own 300 acres in New Hampshire. Yes, we can never do agriculture here like you all do in North Dakota. We could do a damn sight better if Tyson paid production cost for its' chicken feed and USDA policies didn't favor your 50,000 acre operator over Sharon, Nate and I from top to bottom and A to Z. And the whole world might actually eat better.

    Many farmers didn't fertilize in the fall of 2008 due to the difference between grain price and ammonia price which may mean a 50% reduction in total yield and a a 40% reduction in protein in what is harvested.

    Is this correct? Did you mean spring of 2008? Or in preparation for 2009? Are we talking about 2008 yields or 2009 yields?

    Per earlier discussions with Bryan Lutter roughly 50% of fertilizer is early applied in the fall and the other half goes on in the spring. This year the crazy high ammonia prices coupled with crazy low grain prices got farmers sitting on their hands. Only 10% of the normal annual application was done.

    During the application season the pipeline network runs flat out and can't keep up with demand. Next spring assuming that we magically get our credit mess fixed and there is a buy one/get one free special on $99/ton ammonia we've still got a mess because the delivery system won't keep up with the demand.

    Given that the largest private crop insurance operation is behaving as if they're insolvent and our government is as bankrupt as the banking system I don't see that happening. Right now rural banks aren't loaning to farmers in some cases and it's because of the crop insurance thing - the risks used to be manageable. But not any more.

    Here is a link to a site that describes the lack of N application last fall;


    A short conversation with a fertilizer dealer in Iowa will yeild similar results. Almost half the corn acres get fertilized the previous fall.

    For a long time, wheat was about $3/bu after basis while NH3 was $220/ton. It took 70 bu of wheat to buy a ton of NH3.

    Last Sept Wheat was $6 at the farmgate, while NH3 was $1,000. This meant it took 170 bu of wheat to buy a ton of NH3.

    Hence, our cropping systems got turned on their head, and the way we farm, less N means WAY less yield.

    We will probably attempt to make up for lost fall work in the Spring, but a lot of Governors will need to lift regulations on trucker hours hauling product next Spring to make it all happen. If we have super wet conditions, we'll have a calamity.

    How can we make something unsustainable, sustainable?

    Do we do these studies because we fear the unknown? Fear what might lay in store? Population is subject to gravity, it can only go so high before it starts coming back down. To save modern day agriculture may help human population growing to nine billion folks. But then we will merely have to deal with die-off from a peak of nine billion instead of seven billion. There's no good way out of this.

    The abyss, it will look back at you. Don't turn away.

    You echo my thoughts this morning:


    I think the point is that we take care of "our own". In my case that's everyone in North America on up from the Rio Grande. I don't see how Mexico will avoid falling into disorder given the global finance mess coupled with the depletion of Cantarell.

    If hydrogen is to be produced from non-fossil fuel sources the most cost effective way (apart from hydro electricity) will be to produce it in a Very high temperature reactor. The concept is already in advanced stage with a working reactor in Russia (which can be adapted to produce hydrogen if needed) and one under construction in China.

    That is very interesting indeed ... I will have to check into this further.

    Since hydrogen pipes are generally short that means the ammonia plant would be close to the reactor. Perhaps such a plant could make a range of hydrides
    either ammonia or forms that are handled more easily than hydrogen gas.

    To get a feel for the layout of NG based ammonia plant I found this website useful.

    TOD contributor Jon Freise has published a report indicating that Canadian natural gas is on a path to negative EROI within the next six years.

    Jon's report is total nonsense. I work for a large O&G producer in Alberta and I follow the NG industry very closely from multiple sources. There is no indication of any production limitations in the next six years or for the forseeable future.

    Major issues for the NG industry are:
    -- Mackenzie valley pipeline
    -- availability/cost of capital
    -- labour costs (currently easing)
    -- steel costs (currently easing)
    -- competition from US shale NG
    -- softening of US economy/demand

    Any decline of NG production in western Canada will likely be due to either lack of capital or lack of markets. The same generally applies to oilsands production as well.

    The financial crisis is real and we will all have to deal with it.

    The "energy crisis", IMHO, is mostly a figment of people's overactive imaginations.


    Merry Christmas to everyone

    or the foreseeable future

    You're saying that the oil and gas up there is abiotic?

    Tongue out of cheek I'm curious to know what sources you follow. As 12% of our ammonia is Canadian made this data would be useful to me.

    SCT - no one that is IN the energy business (or very few) have ever viewed energy in other than dollar terms, so EROI and related concepts are hard to comprehend from a systems-wide perspective. I am sure there are significant natural gas deposits in Canada - how much they cost and how much CAPITAL and other RESOURCES they require are all a function of quality adjusted energy surplus. This is not something discussed at board meetings.

    Jon Frieses analysis is hardly nonsense. Even if I didn't completely understand what principles he is driving at, I could see these same concepts replicated in the Wall St reports - Credit Suisse had a report showing that nat gas pricing is below both average and marginal cost. Here is a 2007 report from Tudor Pickering showing if drilling stopped how quickly the treadmill would kick in. Costs are going down now, but the cycles will get shorter and shorter. A great deal of the gas in Alberta (and oil sands too) will never be extracted. Petrohawk has huge acreage in Haynesville Shale -right now it costs them $8 mil to drill a lateral/horizontal well which produces between 13-20mcf/day. At $5 that is almost a 250% return ex SG &A. But they have 80% decline rates in first year!!!!. The EROI story ultimately has to be parsed into marginal and fixed. If we had abundant gas that didn't require new wells each year just to stay constant, then I would be less concerned. As it is, I think the north american nat gas cliff happens well before oil turns around and is in shortage. But everything is now connected so who knows....Best get those wind towers widespread - post-haste!

    It is my experience that people closest to issues have the biggest blindspots (Paulson, Bernanke come to mind but I have seen dozens of others). Even the Petrohawk CEO is wildly bullish about nat gas prospects. We have tendency to talk our own position..It's in our genes...

    I'll be on Jason Bradfords Reality Report discussing the North American natural gas treadmill next Monday at noon EST.

    Reality Report? I feel like a long ignored correspondent for that ... how does on get invited to appear?

    On what data do you base your statement "Many farmers didn't fertilize in the fall of 2008 due to the difference between grain price and ammonia price which may mean a 50% reduction in total yield." thanks Billvon

    Bryan Lutter reports a complete breakdown of nitrogen product application this fall due to price and grain values. If some magic happens between now and spring they still won't be able to catch up as the transport system is built such that 50% of application is fall and 50% in the spring.

    So ... if the tankers are lined up at Tampa and all along the Mississippi at the various plants in Louisiana it still won't help due to a delivery logjam.

    Here is a link to a site that describes the lack of N application last fall;


    A short conversation with a fertilizer dealer in Iowa will yeild similar results. Almost half the corn acres get fertilized the previous fall.

    For a long time, wheat was about $3/bu after basis while NH3 was $220/ton. It took 70 bu of wheat to buy a ton of NH3.

    Last Sept Wheat was $6 at the farmgate, while NH3 was $1,000. This meant it took 170 bu of wheat to buy a ton of NH3.

    Hence, our cropping systems got turned on their head, and the way we farm, less N means WAY less yield.

    We will probably attempt to make up for lost fall work in the Spring, but a lot of Governors will need to lift regulations on trucker hours hauling product next Spring to make it all happen. If we have super wet conditions, we'll have a calamity.

    Check out the website of Burrup Fertilisers who are the world's largest producer of liquid ammonia. Note they are opening a chain of vegetarian restaurants so the Indian owners probably have strong views on food and synthetic nitrogen. They have a new method for making ammonium nitrate but I can't find any reference to the solid state ammonia method.

    Their mass transfer process seems to be completely at odds with wind farms. I believe the main use for ammonium nitrate is as an explosive in mining. However water soluble nitrates will be favoured if 'fertigation' or adding dissolved nutrients to irrigation water increases.

    Christmas morning here but now I have to do a couple of hours of farm chores. I'll earn that pudding.

    Hi Folks,

    As mentioned above by Jewish farmer and Weather amongst others there are more sustainable means/systems to food production. A few other points I would like to point out are the inefficiencies in the current monocultural intensive application of nitrogen which has led to nitrification of ground water and is problematic in drinking water as it is difficult to remove and affects health (e.g. blue-baby syndrome)and the environment (here and here for an interesting presentation on ammonia)
    Also the need to review the current system of 'comparative advantage’ that uses prime agricultural land to grow flowers in developing countries in exchange for massively subsidised food grown in by agribusiness in both the developed countries and increasingly in the remaining developing countries. As shown by SacredCowTipper this has led to an unsustainable reliance on imported food.
    The work done by ISEC and the example of traditional Ladakhi culture show how indigenous traditions are quite capable of providing for adequate food even in a limited environment such as Ladakh. As for population – the recent blog by Jonathan Porrit posted recently elsewhere on TOD points to the problem and possible solutions, not least:

    The lives of countless millions of women are devastated by their inability to manage their own fertility, and hundreds of thousands die every year because of illegal abortions or complications from unwanted pregnancies.

    Happy Consumer-mas,

    I don't think anybody has brought up the Paul Crutzen thesis that fugitive N2O from excessive fertiliser could exacerbate AGW

    Suppose we had unlimited cheap fusion power and could grow hydroponic artificially lit crops in skyscrapers, with the ground floor eatery selling delicious 'home made' subs. If open airflow was used it might have to buy permits under cap-and-trade at some 300 CO2 units just to cover one of N2O.

    It has been suggested that green cover crops are adequate for cereal needs. I believe much of the world's wheat is grown in former or evolving rangeland of about 200-400mm rainfall. I doubt you could grow peas, vetch or whatever let alone the fuel cost of plowing it in. I believe the FAO is talking about a switch from wheat and rice to potatoes as a major source of starch. Keep baked potatoes in the fridge as a snack instead of bread.

    What is the cost for a small enough solid state ammonia system for someone with 40 acres and a wind turbine can use the ammonia system as a load leveler?


    Today the cost is infinity. It all sounds wonderful, but if we can't get the pilot plant funded ... infinity. The whole thing just frustrates me some days. Ask me this again in two years and I hope I'll have a better answer.


    How much money is needed for the pilot plant you mention? Is it the smallest viable solid state ammonia processor you can envision?

    I would think that for a pilot plant the sizing is not terrible important, as long as the operating characteristics accurately scaled.

    How big would the pilot plant be? How much output? Do you think it would actually be able to create product, or is it a throw-away pilot plant?

    The smallest viable processor is a single tube, powered with the same juice as a large light bulb.

    This is on the bench now - known to work - and it needs to be commercialized. Different tube sizes and characteristics need to be tested, durability in the face of varying power, maximizing yield, etc, etc, etc. $800k for this is the number we've been using.

    The plant would create small amounts of ammonia - I'd like to see if on the Iowa Lakes Community College training farm where they'd make use of it, but we'll take what we can get at this point.

    Doesn't their need to be some minimal-size gas pressure pump and storage bottle mechanism, or further processing to yield ammonia fertlizer (what does that take)? I guess I'm noodling about the smallest workable size device, and whether it could ever be a home-garden or small-farm size device.

    For example, would it be possible to have a device the size of a refrigerator that refilled bottles the size of propane tanks for farm tractor use, or that somehow spit out ammonium nitrate fertilizer, or something like that?

    $800K doesn't seem like much, to create a solution that could use excess power anywhere. I don't have that much in my pockets, though. Do you monitor the SBIR topics? A Phase I and Phase II combined would cover the amount you'd need. Here is a report on a similar topic funded by SBIR money:

  • http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA429096&Location=U2&doc=GetTRD...
  • A quick Google shows many hits on "solid state ammonia", so I assume lots of other people are working on this already. Is there no way to coordinate this interest to produce at least a research platform?

    The smallest viable processor is a single tube, powered with the same juice as a large light bulb.

    This is on the bench now - known to work - and it needs to be commercialized. Different tube sizes and characteristics need to be tested, durability in the face of varying power, maximizing yield, etc, etc, etc. $800k for this is the number we've been using.

    The plant would create small amounts of ammonia - I'd like to see if on the Iowa Lakes Community College training farm where they'd make use of it, but we'll take what we can get at this point.

    Hi SCT,

    Thanks for this. I don't know if anyone is looking back this far (it took me a while to get through all the comments!)...for questions. I have several:

    In terms of what's related your comment above, did you mean to say "I'd like to see *it*..." (not "if")?

    Are you open to looking at other kinds of collaborations, in particular academic ones?

    If so, do you have information available for prospective funders and/or collaborators?

    I might know of some potential interest; but wonder if (like poster above) others are also doing this already and thus perhaps even more collaborative potential, in terms of funding.

    Thanks so much to Neal and co-authors (and those who commented),

    for bringing up the "big picture" view of this important topic.

    Some questions:

    1) First - will you be updating this? I'd like to keep up with what you're doing. Also, Neal, could you please take a look at my question below about possible collaboration, including with other colleges and /or universities?

    2) When you talk about Mexico and other countries...Once you take a look at "home security first", could you not "export" (...some food security strategies) - or think about and analyze the situation in Mexico, for example?

    Sometimes it seems to me that the resource-trading (or, "horse-trading", really - on a grand scale) that goes on makes the use of national distinctions something of a hindrance WRT looking at ways of mitigating and looking at positive action.

    Ditto would go for possible technologies (or sustainability practices, for that matter) - you bring up and those others bring up as well.

    Could these not be shared in an open fashion?

    Would this require some new laws to inhibit corporate actions? Or, could it be done simply in an "open'source"/TOD fashion?

    Aniya - my email is clearly visible at the StrandedWind.org web site ... drop me a note.