A fertilizer revolution is on the horizon

IBM says it will produce a breakthrough within five years that will greatly lower the energy needed to make nitrogen

As fledgling technology goes, quantum computing sounds as science fiction as it gets.

But if IBM fulfills a bold promise it made in September, crop producers will see the fruits of this technology within five years.

By using quantum computing and artificial intelligence to speed up the process, IBM researchers are confident they can revolutionize the production of nitrogen fertilizer.

Why it matters: Fertilizer production is a large emitter of carbon into the atmosphere.

“Basically, for every ton of fertilizer produced, we consume one ton of fossil fuel,” Teo Laino, manager of IBM Research Zurich, said in an email interview.

“We are working to identify and develop materials that will make the conversion of nitrogen into fertilizers happen in a more environmental and sustainable way.”

If successful, this could mean lower nutrient costs for producers and, given growing concerns about greenhouse gases, produce a major public relations win for the ag industry, as well.

IBM’s goal is to improve the Haber-Bosch process, which turns nitrogen gas into nitrates. The process was created by two German chemists more than a century ago.

“Fertilizers have helped to sustain two times more people on Earth (than otherwise),” said Laino.

“(But) this process is consuming nearly two to three per cent of the global energy production on a yearly basis.

“The impact of the current process has brought the population to the verge of a sustainability crisis.”

This is what prompted the global technology giant to pledge that it would use its quantum computing and AI capability to fundamentally improve the Haber-Bosch process.

The effort to find a much less energy-intensive way to make fertilizer in five years is exciting, said University of Manitoba soil scientist Mario Tenuta, one of the country’s leading experts on fertilizer use and the senior Canada research chair in 4R nutrient management.

“(IBM is) not thinking about making a widget. It’s thinking about making something that’s going to change the structure of our industrial processes and get us closer to where we need to go in terms of living and sustaining our presence here,” he said.

IBM’s bid to greatly reduce the amount of energy needed to make fertilizer would be a huge advance for agriculture, says Mario Tenuta, a University of Manitoba soil scientist and one of the country’s top experts on fertilizer use. photo: Supplied

IBM’s specific goal is to find a new catalyst for the Haber-Bosch process. A catalyst is a substance that makes a chemical reaction proceed more quickly without being consumed in the reaction.

Making nitrogen fertilizer requires, not surprisingly, nitrogen. There’s plenty out there — it makes up 78 per cent of the air we breathe — but plants can only use it in its “fixed” form. In nature, that means it must be harvested from the atmosphere by micro-organisms to form ammonia, nitrites and nitrates, which help plants grow.

Legumes can do this, but to do it on an industrial scale with the Haber-Bosch process requires very high temperatures and lots of energy. For decades, researchers have tried to engineer a better catalyst that would reduce the energy needed to produce ammonia through the Haber-Bosch process, but identifying one has been problematic.

There are virtually endless combinations of materials to sort through.

That’s where quantum computing comes in.

Faster computing — faster solutions

Quantum computers are exponentially faster than even the largest existing computers. The simplest explanation is instead of encoding information in bits that exist in a binary state of either 1 or 0, they use “qubits” that exist in states of both 1 and 0 simultaneously. It is this state of superposition that makes quantum computing so fast.

IBM researchers plan to extract the materials quantum computers identify as possible catalysts and then, with the help of AI, construct, test and validate predictive models that could make a more energy-efficient fertilizer production process possible.

The next step would be to scale the process. 

The company foresees the use of fuel cells that would work like a reverse battery. Basically, instead of storing energy, fuel cells would use energy from renewable sources to combine nitrogen from the atmosphere and hydrogen from water to produce ammonia.

The catalytic molecules identified by the technology would be used to lower the amount of energy needed to sustain the nitrogen fixation process.

But what would all this actually mean for crop farmers trying to limit input costs?

Basic economics dictate that a less energy-intensive process for making fertilizer should mean savings for fertilizer companies (less energy equals less cost), with those savings theoretically passed on to the producer. 

However, unknown factors remain at play, particularly when it comes to the kind of energy that will fuel fertilizer production, said Tenuta.

With IBM’s focus on using renewables such as solar and hydro as fuel for the production process, how much farmers would wind up paying for the end product is anyone’s guess, he said.

“I am personally expecting that by 2050 our reliance on fossil fuels as an energy source is going to be in the minority compared to renewables,” he said. “You just don’t know what the cost of those renewables is going to be down the road.”

That said, Tenuta believes the fact that IBM is looking for this catalyst using in-reach technology is itself remarkable. Who knows where that might lead, he said, adding it might even allow fertilizer to be made on farms.

“Maybe a really good catalyst will ensure there is no difference between a factory and a farmer’s yard,” said Tenuta. “You would still think that (production) would be more efficient in a big factory than making it at a small scale, but who knows?”

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