Fertilizers (also spelled 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.
Both organic and inorganic fertilizers were called "manures" derived from the French expression for manual tillage, but this term is now mostly restricted to organic manure.
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.
While manure, cinder and iron making slag have been used to improve crops for centuries, the use of fertilizers is arguably one of the great innovations of the Agricultural Revolution of the 19th Century.
In the 1730s, Viscount Charles Townshend (1674–1738) first studied the improving effects of the four crop rotation system that he had observed in use in Flanders. For this he gained the nickname of Turnip Townshend.
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 Englishmen James Fison, Edward Packard, Thomas Hadfield and the Prentice brothers each founded companies in the early 19th century to create fertilizers from bonemeal. The developing sciences of chemistry and Paleontology, combined with the discovery of coprolites in commercial quantities in East Anglia, led Fisons and Packard to develop sulfuric acid and fertilizer plants at Bramford, and Snape, Suffolk in the 1850s to create superphosphates, which were shipped around the world from the port at Ipswich. By 1870 there were about 80 factories making superphosphate. After World War I these businesses came under financial pressure through new competition from guano, primarily found on the Pacific islands, as their extraction and distribution had become economically attractive.
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.
Inorganic fertilizers (mineral fertilizer)
Naturally occurring inorganic fertilizers include Chilean sodium nitrate, mined rock phosphate, and limestone (a calcium source).
Macronutrients and micronutrients
Fertilizers can be divided into macronutrients or micronutrients based on their concentrations in plant dry matter. There are six macronutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, often termed "primary macronutrients" because their availability is usually managed with NPK fertilizers, and the "secondary macronutrients" — calcium, magnesium, and sulfur — which are required in roughly similar quantities but whose availability is often managed as part of liming and manuring practices rather than fertilizers. The macronutrients are consumed in larger quantities and normally present as a whole number or tenths of percentages in plant tissues (on a dry matter weight basis). There are many micronutrients, required in concentrations ranging from 5 to 100 parts per million (ppm) by mass. Plant micronutrients include iron (Fe), manganese (Mn), boron (B), copper (Cu), molybdenum (Mo), nickel (Ni), chlorine (Cl), and zinc (Zn).
Synthesized materials are also called artificial, and may be described as straight, where the product predominantly contains the three primary ingredients of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), which are known as N-P-K fertilizers or compound fertilizers when elements are mixed intentionally. They are named or labeled according to the content of these three elements, which are macronutrients. The mass fraction (percent) nitrogen is reported directly. However, phosphorus is reported as phosphorus pentoxide (P2O5), the anhydride of phosphoric acid, and potassium is reported as potassium oxide (K2O), which is the anhydride of potassium hydroxide. Fertilizer composition is expressed in this fashion for historical reasons in the way it was analyzed (conversion to ash for P and K); this practice dates back to Justus von Liebig (see more below). Consequently, an 18-51-20 fertilizer would have 18% nitrogen as N, 51% phosphorus as P2O5, and 20% potassium as K2O, The other 11% is known as ballast and may or may not be valuable to the plants, depending on what is used as ballast. Although analyses are no longer carried out by ashing first, the naming convention remains. If nitrogen is the main element, they are often described as nitrogen fertilizers.
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.
Agricultural versus horticultural
In general, agricultural fertilizers contain only 1 or 2 macronutrients. Agricultural fertilizers are intended to be applied infrequently and normally prior to or alongside seeding. Examples of agricultural fertilizers are granular triple superphosphate, potassium chloride, urea, and anhydrous ammonia. The commodity nature of fertilizer, combined with the high cost of shipping, leads to use of locally available materials or those from the closest/cheapest source, which may vary with factors affecting transportation by rail, ship, or truck. In other words, a particular nitrogen source may be very popular in one part of the country while another is very popular in another geographic region only due to factors unrelated to agronomic concerns.
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.
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.
Health and sustainability issues
Inorganic fertilizers sometimes do not replace trace mineral elements in the soil which become gradually depleted by crops grown there. This has been linked to studies which have shown a marked fall (up to 75%) in the quantities of such minerals present in fruit and vegetables. One exception to this is in Western Australia where deficiencies of zinc, copper, manganese, iron and molybdenum were identified as limiting the growth of crops and pastures in the 1940s and 1950s. Soils in Western Australia are very old, highly weathered and deficient in many of the major nutrients and trace elements. Since this time these trace elements are routinely added to inorganic fertilizers used in agriculture in this state.
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.
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.
Manufactured organic fertilizers include compost, bloodmeal, bone meal and seaweed extracts. Other examples are natural enzyme digested proteins, fish meal, and feather meal.
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.
Biomineral soil management, a total mineral and biological concept evolved by the South Australian Geomite company, utilizes the interaction of an 'insoluble' minerals base with specific micro-organisms to provide nutrition, structure and enhanced biology in soils. It proposes that plants feed by releasing root exudates of precise chemical composition to activate those soil fungi and bacteria which will solubilize elements required by the plant at that time.
The exudate composition varies throughout the life of the plant, and any stresses imposed upon it result in further compensatory changes - in essence, the plant practises self medication. The term 'nature's smorgasbord' was coined to explain this process. It provides a possible explanation for the prevalence of pest and disease attack in crops fertilized by chemical means - applied soluble fertilizer masks the 'smorgasbord' process, eliminating correct nutrition.
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.
Although the density of nutrients in organic material is comparatively modest, they have some advantages. Some or all organic fertilizer can be produced on-site, lowering transport costs. The majority of nitrogen supplying organic fertilizers contain insoluble nitrogen and act as a slow-release fertilizer.
Modern theories of organic agriculture admit the obvious success of Leibig's theory, but stress that there are serious limitations to the current methods of implementing it via chemical fertilization. They re-emphasize the role of humus and other organic components of soil, which are believed to play several important roles:
- Mobilizing existing soil nutrients, so that good growth is achieved with lower nutrient densities while wasting less
- Releasing nutrients at a slower, more consistent rate, helping to avoid a boom-and-bust pattern
- Helping to retain soil moisture, reducing the stress due to temporary moisture stress
- Improving the soil structure
- Organics also have the advantage of avoiding certain problems associated with the regular heavy use of artificial fertilizers:
- the possibility of "burning" plants with the concentrated chemicals (i.e. an over supply of some nutrients)
- the progressive decrease of real or perceived "soil health", apparent in loss of structure, reduced ability to absorb precipitation, lightening of soil color, etc.
- the necessity of reapplying artificial fertilizers regularly (and perhaps in increasing quantities) to maintain fertility
- extensive runoff of soluble nitrogen and phosphorus, leading to eutrophication
- the cost (substantial and rising in recent years) and resulting lack of independence
- Organic fertilizers can have disadvantages:
- As, typically, a dilute source of nutrients when compared to inorganic fertilizers, applying significant amounts of nutrients in a distant location from the source would incur increased costs for transportation
- The composition of organic fertilizers tends to be more complex and variable than a standardized inorganic product.
- Improperly-processed organic fertilizers may contain pathogens from plant or animal matter that are harmful to humans or plants. However, proper composting should remove them.
- In non-organic farming a compromise between the use of artificial and organic fertilizers is common, often using inorganic fertilizers supplemented with the application of organics that are readily available such as the return of crop residues or the application of manure.