New N.C. State project aims to make fertilizer production greener
N.C. State University is launching a new initiative aimed at finding greener ways to make fertilizer after landing a $6.5 million grant this month from the Novo Nordisk Foundation.
Why it matters: Creating fertilizers — which are critical for making soil productive enough to feed the world's growing population — is incredibly energy intensive.
- Manufacturing of ammonia, a key component of fertilizers, requires temperatures of around 500 degrees Celsius, an energy suck that contributes between 1% and 2% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, according to the Institute for Industrial Productivity.
- The grant pairs N.C. State, the state's premier agriculture school, with one of the world's largest grant makers for breakthrough technologies.
"We would absolutely not have the food supply that we have without chemically created fertilizer," Sonja Salmon, a professor and researcher at N.C. State's Wilson College of Textiles, whose department is leading the initiative, told Axios.
- "But ... it's time to think: Can we do this in a different way?"
The intrigue: Instead of harnessing traditional green energy sources like wind and solar to make ammonia production cleaner, N.C. State is turning to its textiles department to find an altogether new approach.
What's happening: The Novo Nordisk Foundation has pledged money for the first five years of the new N.C. State initiative.
- The project will focus on how to use the naturally occurring nitrogenase enzyme, a protein that can convert nitrogen to ammonia at room temperature (making the process less energy intensive), on a large scale.
Yes, but: Nitrogenase, while abundant in nature, is difficult to harness.
- That's where N.C. State's textile school will come into play, designing filters soaked with the enzyme that can capture nitrogen and trigger the reaction that produces ammonia.
The bottom line: N.C. State is tackling one of the dirtiest parts of the agriculture world. If it is successful, it could make the production of fertilizer more sustainable.
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