See publications of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.
Natural or artificial substance containing the chemical elements that improve growth and productiveness of plants. Fertilizers enhance the natural fertility of the soil or replace the chemical elements taken from the soil by previous crops. The use of manure and composts as fertilizers is probably almost as old as agriculture. Modern chemical fertilizers include one or more of the three elements most important in plant nutrition: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Of secondary importance are the elements sulfur, magnesium, and calcium.
Learn more about fertilizer with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Fertilizers (also spelt fertiliser) are chemical compounds given to plants to promote growth; they are usually applied either through the soil, for uptake by plant roots, or by foliar feeding, for uptake through leaves. Fertilizers can be organic (composed of organic matter), or inorganic (made of simple, inorganic chemicals or minerals). They can be naturally occurring compounds such as peat or mineral deposits, or manufactured through natural processes (such as composting) or chemical processes (such as the Haber process). These chemical compounds leave lawns, gardens, and soils looking beautiful as they are given different essential nutrients that encourage plant growth.
They typically provide, in varying proportions, the three major plant nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium: N-P-K), the secondary plant nutrients (calcium, sulfur, magnesium) and sometimes trace elements (or micronutrients) with a role in plant or animal nutrition: boron, chlorine, manganese, iron, zinc, copper, molybdenum and (in some countries) selenium.
Though nitrogen is plentiful in the earth's atmosphere, relatively few plants engage in nitrogen fixation (conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to a biologically useful form). Most plants thus require nitrogen compounds to be present in the soil in which they grow.
It is believed that organic agricultural methods are more environmentally friendly and better maintain soil organic matter levels. However, there are no generally accepted scientific studies that support this supposition. Regardless the source, fertilization results in increased unharvested plant biomass left on the soil surface and crop residues remaining in the soil. Too much of a vital nutrient can be as detrimental as not enough. "Fertilizer burn" can occur when too much fertilizer is applied, resulting in a drying out of the roots and damage or even death of the plant. Organic fertilizers are just as likely to burn as inorganic fertilizers. If excess nitrogen is present the plants will begin to exude nitrogen from the leafy areas. This is called guttation.
Chemist Justus von Liebig (1803–1883) contributed greatly to the advancement in the understanding of plant nutrition. His influential works first denounced the vitalist theory of humus, arguing first the importance of ammonia, and later the importance of inorganic minerals. Primarily his work succeeded in setting out questions for agricultural science to address over the next 50 years. In England he attempted to implement his theories commercially through a fertilizer created by treating phosphate of lime in bone meal with sulfuric acid. Although it was much less expensive than the guano that was used at the time, it failed because it was not able to be properly absorbed by crops.
At that time in England, Sir John Bennet Lawes (1814–1900) was experimenting with crops and manures at his farm at Harpenden and was able to produce a practical superphosphate in 1842 from the phosphates in rock and coprolites. Encouraged, he employed Sir Joseph Henry Gilbert, who had studied under Liebig at the University of Giessen, as director of research. To this day, the Rothamsted research station that they founded still investigates the impact of inorganic and organic fertilizers on crop yields.
In France, Jean Baptiste Boussingault (1802–1887) pointed out that the amount of nitrogen in various kinds of fertilizers is important.
Metallurgists Percy Gilchrist (1851–1935) and Sidney Gilchrist Thomas (1850–1885) invented the Thomas-Gilchrist converter, which enabled the use of high phosphorus acidic Continental ores for steelmaking. The dolomite lime lining of the converter turned in time into calcium phosphate, which could be used as fertilizer known as Thomas-phosphate.
In the early decades of the 20th Century, the Nobel prize-winning chemists Carl Bosch of IG Farben and Fritz Haber developed the process that enabled nitrogen to be cheaply synthesised into ammonia, for subsequent oxidisation into nitrates and nitrites.
In 1927 Erling Johnson developed an industrial method for producing nitrophosphate, also known as the Odda process after his Odda Smelteverk of Norway. The process involved acidifying phosphate rock (from Nauru and Banaba Islands in the southern Pacific Ocean) with nitric acid to produce phosphoric acid and calcium nitrate which, once neutralized, could be used as a nitrogen fertilizer.
The interwar period saw innovative competition from Imperial Chemical Industries who developed synthetic ammonium sulfate in 1923, Nitro-chalk in 1927, and a more concentrated and economical fertilizer called CCF based on ammonium phosphate in 1931. Competition was limited as ICI ensured it controlled most of the world's ammonium sulfate supplies. Other European and North American fertilizer companies developed their market share, forcing the English pioneer companies to merge, becoming Fisons, Packard, and Prentice Ltd. in 1929. Together they were producing 85,000 tonnes of superphosphate per annum by 1934 from their new factory and deep-water docks in Ipswich. By World War II they had acquired about 40 companies, including Hadfields in 1935, and two years later the large Anglo-Continental Guano Works, founded in 1917.
The post-war environment was characterized by much higher production levels as a result of the "Green Revolution" and new types of seed with increased nitrogen-absorbing potential, notably the high-response varieties of maize, wheat, and rice. This has accompanied the development of strong national competition, accusations of cartels and supply monopolies, and ultimately another wave of mergers and acquisitions. The original names no longer exist other than as holding companies or brand names: Fisons and ICI agrochemicals are part of today's Yara International and AstraZeneca companies.
In general, the mass fraction (percentage) of elemental phosphorus, [P] = 0.436 x [P2O5]
and the mass fraction (percentage) of elemental potassium, [K] = 0.83 x [K2O]
(These conversion factors are mandatory under the UK fertilizer-labelling regulations if elemental values are declared in addition to the N-P-K declaration.)
An 18−51−20 fertilizer therefore contains, by weight, 18% elemental nitrogen (N), 22% elemental phosphorus (P) and 16% elemental potassium (K).
B5A fertilizer is a macronutritient fertilizer.
Horticultural or specialty fertilizers, on the other hand, are formulated from many of the same compounds and some others to produce well-balanced fertilizers that also contain micronutrients. Some materials, such as ammonium nitrate, are used minimally in large scale production farming. The 18-51-20 example above is a horticultural fertilizer formulated with high phosphorus to promote bloom development in ornamental flowers. Horticultural fertilizers may be water-soluble (instant release) or relatively insoluble (controlled release). Controlled release fertilizers are also referred to as sustained release or timed release. Many controlled release fertilizers are intended to be applied approximately every 3-6 months, depending on watering, growth rates, and other conditions, whereas water-soluble fertilizers must be applied at least every 1-2 weeks and can be applied as often as every watering if sufficiently dilute. Unlike agricultural fertilizers, horticultural fertilizers are marketed directly to consumers and become part of retail product distribution lines.
|Country||Total N consumption (Mt pa)||of which used for feed & pasture|
Nitrogen fertilizer is often synthesized using the Haber-Bosch process, which produces ammonia. This ammonia is applied directly to the soil or used to produce other compounds, notably ammonium nitrate and urea, both dry, concentrated products that may be used as fertilizer materials or mixed with water to form a concentrated liquid nitrogen fertilizer, UAN. Ammonia can also be used in the Odda Process in combination with rock phosphate and potassium fertilizer to produce compound fertilizers such as 10-10-10 or 15-15-15.
The production of ammonia currently consumes about 5% of global natural gas consumption, which is somewhat under 2% of world energy production. Natural gas is overwhelmingly used for the production of ammonia, but other energy sources, together with a hydrogen source, can be used for the production of nitrogen compounds suitable for fertilizers. The cost of natural gas makes up about 90% of the cost of producing ammonia. The price increases in natural gas in the past decade, among other factors such as increasing demand, have contributed to an increase in fertilizer price.
Nitrogen-based fertilizers are most commonly used to treat fields used for growing maize, followed by barley, sorghum, rapeseed, soyabean and sunflower. Study results have shown have shown that using nitrogen fertilizer on off-season cover crops can not only increase the biomass of these crops, but can also have a beneficial effect on the nitrogen levels in the soil for the cash crop planted during the summer season.
In many countries there is the public perception that inorganic fertilizers "poison the soil" and result in "low quality" produce. However, there is very little (if any) scientific evidence to support these views. When used appropriately, inorganic fertilizers enhance plant growth, the accumulation of organic matter and the biological activity of the soil, preventing overgrazing and soil erosion. The nutritional value of plants for human and animal consumption is typically improved when inorganic fertilizers are used appropriately.
There are concerns though about arsenic, cadmium and uranium accumulating in fields treated with phosphate fertilizers. The phosphate minerals contain trace amounts of these elements and if no cleaning step is applied after mining the continuous use of phosphate fertilizers leads towards an accumulation of these elements in the soil. Eventually these can build up to unacceptable levels and get into the produce. (See cadmium poisoning.)
Another problem with inorganic fertilizers is that they are presently produced in ways which cannot be continued indefinitely. Potassium and phosphorus come from mines (or from saline lakes such as the Dead Sea in the case of potassium fertilizers) and resources are limited. Nitrogen is unlimited, but nitrogen fertilizers are presently made using fossil fuels such as natural gas. Theoretically fertilizers could be made from sea water or atmospheric nitrogen using renewable energy, but doing so would require huge investment and is not competitive with today's unsustainable methods. Innovative thermal depolymerization biofuel schemes are experimenting with the production of byproducts with 9% nitrogen fertilizer from organic waste
Naturally occurring organic fertilizers include manure, slurry, worm castings, peat, seaweed, sewage , and guano. Green manure crops are also grown to add nutrients to the soil. Naturally occurring minerals such as mine rock phosphate, sulfate of potash and limestone are also considered Organic Fertilizers.
The decomposing crop residue from prior years is another source of fertility. Though not strictly considered "fertilizer", the distinction seems more a matter of words than reality.
Some ambiguity in the usage of the term 'organic' exists because some of synthetic fertilizers, such as urea and urea formaldehyde, are fully organic in the sense of organic chemistry. In fact, it would be difficult to chemically distinguish between urea of biological origin and that produced synthetically. On the other hand, some fertilizer materials commonly approved for organic agriculture, such as powdered limestone, mined rock phosphate and Chilean saltpeter, are inorganic in the use of the term by chemistry.
Storage and application of some nitrogen fertilizers in some weather or soil conditions can cause emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O). Ammonia gas (NH3) may be emitted following application of inorganic fertilizers, or manure or slurry. Besides supplying nitrogen, ammonia can also increase soil acidity (lower pH, or "souring"). Excessive nitrogen fertilizer applications can also lead to pest problems by increasing the birth rate, longevity and overall fitness of certain pests.
The concentration of up to 100 mg/kg of cadmium in phosphate minerals (for example, minerals from Nauru and the Christmas islands) increases the contamination of soil with cadmium, for example in New Zealand. Uranium is another example of a contaminant often found in phosphate fertilizers, also radioactive Polonium-210 contained in phosphate fertilizers is absorbed by the roots of plants and stored in it tissues. Tobacco derived from plants fertilzed by rock phosphates contains Polonium-210 which emits alpha radiation estimated to cause about 11,700 lung cancer deaths each year worldwide.
For these reasons, it is recommended that knowledge of the nutrient content of the soil and nutrient requirements of the crop are carefully balanced with application of nutrients in inorganic fertilizer especially. This process is called nutrient budgeting. By careful monitoring of soil conditions, farmers can avoid wasting expensive fertilizers, and also avoid the potential costs of cleaning up any pollution created as a byproduct of their farming.
It is also possible to over-apply organic fertilizers; however, their nutrient content, their solubility, and their release rates are typically much lower than chemical fertilizers. By their nature, most organic fertilizers also provide increased physical and biological storage mechanisms to soils, which tend to mitigate their risks.
We throw away nutrients for our plants in underground sewage systems. We do this in such a way that pollutes underground water tables. Then we buy manufactured "nutrients" for our plants which aren't as good as what we threw away. This is modern day wastewater "technology".
Michael Reynolds - Earthship Vol.2: Systems and Components
The growth of the world's population to its current figure has only been possible through intensification of agriculture associated with the use of fertilizers. There is an impact on the sustainable consumption of other global resources as a consequence.
By changing processes and procedures, it is possible to mitigate some, but not all, of these effects on anthropogenic climate change.
The nitrogen-rich compounds found in fertilizer run-off is the primary cause of a serious depletion of oxygen in many parts of the ocean, especially in coastal zones; the resulting lack of dissolved oxygen is greatly reducing the ability of these areas to sustain oceanic fauna.