The Coming Global Fertilizer Crisis — and How to Solve it (The Pattern of Disruption, Part 5)

The Nitrogen Disruption

Chile’s victory in 1880 in a war with Bolivia and Peru consolidated ownership of the Atacama Desert into the hands of a single nation. The Atacama is one of the driest places on Earth. Geologists suggest that nitrogen-laden groundwater that has slowly percolated through the desert soil and evaporated is responsible for a layer of soil there that is infused with sodium nitrate. This is a salt which is useful as both a fertilizer and to produce gunpowder and explosives.

Synthetic Fertilizer Enabled ‘Bread from Air’

In 1909, chemist Fritz Haber demonstrated that nitrogen-containing ammonia could be produced by combining air and methane (natural gas), which Thomas Hager, the author of The Alchemy of Air, called “the most important discovery ever made”. The BASF company, founded in the 1860s to produce artificial dyes, bought the rights to Haber’s process, and BASF chemist Carl Bosch began to develop its industrial-scale production.

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RethinkX, disruptive technology think tank

RethinkX, disruptive technology think tank

RethinkX is an independent think tank that analyzes and forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications across society.