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Feeding Europe's Future: Part 2

Published by , Assistant Editor
World Fertilizer,

Jacob Hansen, Fertilizers Europe, Belgium, details how Europe's fertilizer industry can help to address the challenge of meeting its future food requirements in a more sustainable way.

Fertilizer production 2030

Europe has the ambition to lead the global battle against climate change. On 28 November 2018, the European Commission published its climate strategy vision entitled: “A Clean Planet for All: A European strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive, and climate neutral economy”. The EU’s objective of a net zero emissions economy by 2050 represents a huge challenge for the mineral fertilizer industry, given the natural gas-based and energy-intensive nature of nitrogen fertilizer production. The European fertilizer industry is already affected by the EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS). Further decarbonisation will affect the industry in multiple ways, exposing it to the risk of carbon leakage (whereby industries move production from high to lower-regulated regions). However, provided that systems are put in place for maintaining a level playing field, the EU ammonia industry can become an important part of the low carbon transition ahead and become a key player in the energy storage that will certainly be a fast growing sector. While it is difficult to imagine nitrogen fertilizer production to be totally carbon-free without extensive use of carbon capture and storage, the good news is that with the technologies of today, such a future is realistic and possible, in principle.

‘Taking on challenges’ is the vision when it comes to the production of fertilizers in Europe in 2030. As the major producer of ammonia in Europe, the nitrogen fertilizer industry is likely to play an important role in the storing, transportation, and conversion of green energy based on hydrogen, as ammonia is the ‘missing link’ in the coming energy transformation. More flexible production of ammonia is expected to be the norm.

The industry will also be challenged by the demand for better and more targeted fertilizers, and it will increase its efforts in terms of innovation and product development, being ready to take advantage of new science and technologies related to plant growth.

The fertilizer producers in Europe will also continue working on optimising resource use and looking for new and more effective ways to recycle a wide range of by-products in its production process, turning them into valuable plant nutrients. The industry will be using surplus energy and raw materials, which derive from other production processes on fertilizer production sites as well as from production processes taking place elsewhere. In 2030, the synergies between fertilizer producers and industries, such as nylon production, will continue.

Looking further ahead into 2050

In terms of designing and building new production facilities for mineral fertilizers, 2030 is just around the corner. It is instructive to imagine the world of 2050, and see if the steps taken in 2030 will be in line with what could become reality.

In 2050 ammonia, which is the raw material for nitrogen fertilizer production, could be made from ‘green’ hydrogen derived from the electrolysis of water, powered by renewably-produced (green) electricity. This hydrogen will be produced at the most convenient sites where solar, wind, or other forms of green energy are abundantly available. Ammonia can be produced near those sites, since ammonia is the most effective hydrogen storage available. But ammonia can also be produced at existing ammonia producing sites, connected to the hydrogen network via the former natural gas pipeline grid.

Since ammonia in this case will be used predominantly for energy storage and, furthermore, as it is the most likely replacement for LNG and LPG in the energy transport market, the production of ammonia for fertilizer use will form a smaller proportion of global ammonia consumption than today. Making ammonia available for the production of plant nutrients does not necessitate large production sites. Much smaller sites, closer to the major agricultural areas, could be used. Those areas are to be defined by climate, soil quality, and water availability, rather than the availability of cheap gas. The EU still need to import raw materials, such as phosphate and potash that form the basis of the other main plant nutrients, and which can only be found to a limited extent in Europe. However, by 2050 it could be possible to obtain an important proportion of the major nutrients, such as potassium and potash, by closing a loop in the circular economy. For example, some raw materials will come from municipal water treatment units, where valuable nutrients can be retrieved and made available for fertilizers.

If there is an abundance of green ammonia, it will likely replace gas-based ammonia production. As a result, this could in effect also eliminate the production of urea since the carbon dioxide necessary for urea production will no longer be available. This development will further enhance the production of ammonium nitrate fertilizers in Europe. There will be a large array of ammonium nitrate fertilizers to complement deficits in organic compost and manure-based fertilizer pellets.

It is possible to imagine a situation in 2050 in which a carbon neutral European production of fertilizers nourishes agricultural production, and the European fertilizer industry has become the most innovative and efficient in global terms, while reducing its carbon footprint to meet the EU’s 2050 challenges. However, such a situation is conditional on an abundant amount of carbon-free and competitively priced electricity being available, and the expansion of networks for the transportation of ammonia/hydrogen.

From vision to reality

As the EU voices its ambition to be the frontrunner in sustainable agricultural production, the European mineral fertilizer industry commits to contribute to this objective by playing a key role in the food production chain, providing innovative plant nutrition solutions that will help European farmers meet future food needs in a sustainable way.

The EU is also forging ahead with a plan to decarbonise the economy. The European mineral fertilizer industry is based on the use of natural gas and today operates the world’s most energy efficient fertilizer production facilities. From a global climate perspective, each tonne of production in Europe saves global CO2 emissions. But the industry can do more. Above all, it can perform in the long run a key function in making the hydrogen economy function in practice.

This Fertilizers Europe Vision to 2030 is not defending the status quo, but is rather looking forward, challenging what the industry currently does. It requires strong commitment from industry leaders and strong support from policy-makers to ensure a stable and predictable legislative framework, which will allow us to translate this ambitious vision into reality.

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