Nitricity has developed an experimental plasma reactor that uses solar electricity to produce environmentally friendly nitrogen fertilizers at competitive prices. Their on-site fertilizer production eliminates emissions from fertilizer transport and offers a viable alternative to fossil fuel-consuming nitrogen fixation methods like the Haber-Bosch process.
Nitricity uses solar electricity to extract nitrogen directly from our air to produce nitric acid, the most essential nutrient in the fertilizers plants use to grow everything we eat. Key features of the company’s product are the decarbonization, decentralization and privatization of fertilizer manufacturing, enabled by affordable, off-grid intermittent solar electricity.
The company installed its first commercial project in October 2021. The off-grid solar power system is made up of 144 solar panels, although details describing the solar hardware are scarce.
On their website, Nitricity shares an experimental report from their pilot project in Fresno, California. The solar system for the initial installation was a ground-mounted 16-panel array that produced 75-85 V with a maximum output of 2.4 kW.
The installation was directly coupled to an underground irrigation system used to fertilize a tomato crop. The article covers the apparent success of their equipment, which produced tomatoes in a similar volume and quality to the control tomatoes. (Control tomatoes received a standard industrially produced nitrogen fertilizer.)
Nitricty believes its product will fill several niches. Because the system is easily distributed, farmers located far from fertilizer manufacturing centers will have an added financial incentive to try the new technology.
Nitricity’s process competes directly with the industrial production of ammonia – a process that directly creates more CO2 than any other human chemical process on earth. The main feedstock for modern nitrogen fixation is natural gas. Converting the gas to ammonia releases these emissions. Emissions from the chemical process are only part of the story, as emissions from the fossil fuels traditionally used to heat and sustain the reaction are also excessive.
In its favor, the Haber-Bosch process was largely responsible for the Green Revolution of the mid-1900s, which helped catapult the world’s population. It is estimated that almost half of all the nitrogen currently present in human tissues was produced using this process.
Additionally, Nitity’s distributed and localized nitrogen solution also avoids transport emissions. The company points out that market inefficiencies related to the process of distributing fossil-based nitrogen fertilizers can increase a farmer’s fertilizer cost as much as two to five times above a plant’s costs. Fossil fertilizer production costs are also volatile due to their direct relationship to natural gas – which, as mentioned earlier, provides the main feedstock for industrial ammonia.
In December, the US Department of Energy’s ARPA Energy awarded the group $500,000 to advance its “non-thermal plasma reactor” process. ARPA notes that “literature and modeling analysis suggest that an energy yield ten times greater than current plasma values and equal to or greater than that of the conventional Haber-Bosch process could be achieved.”
In an interview with Agrifood Conversations, the company noted that the intermittent nature of solar power is not only easy to manage, but is actually a desired trait. According to one of Nitricity’s founders, Nicolas Pinkowski, the process “works best intermittently. Because we make nitrates (NO3-), there is a lot of oxygen to transport per pound of nitrogen”. Nitricity uses a 200 gallon tank to store product before it is applied to tomatoes.
In August 2021, the company raised $5 million. Recently, Nitricity announced that it had signed an agreement with a wheat producer by publishing calculations focused on emissions:
- 1 acre of wheat needs about 100 pounds of nitrogen.
- 100 pounds of N (via ammonia or urea) is produced in a coal or NG plant today, emitting about 300 pounds of CO2.
- ~1.5 lbs of N2O are emitted per acre via the nitrification process. This means that one acre emits approximately 450 pounds of CO2 due to N2O emissions from the soil.
- In total, 1 acre of wheat can emit up to 750 pounds of CO2 emissions from the production and application of fertilizer.
Nitricity’s technology mitigates nearly 100% of these emissions.
These fertilization systems could be integrated with solar-powered greenhouses and other responsible land management techniques. In doing so, solar energy will likely prove indispensable to our future food production.
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