26 February 2024

From factory to field: Decarbonizing ammonia production

From factory to field: Decarbonizing ammonia production

By Hanh Nguyen, VP Global Sustainability

Food system transformation is critical in addressing the twin challenges of food security and climate change. The urgent need to drive change was acknowledged this month by the launch of the ‘COP28 UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action’, which was signed by 134 world leaders on the first day of COP to include emissions from agriculture and farming into their national plans to tackle climate change by 2025.

The fertilizer industry will be central to that transformation. Each day billions of people rely on nitrogen fertilizers, which support nearly half the world’s food supply. They are also responsible for around five percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, more than global aviation and shipping combined, or more than the emissions of all but the three highest emitting countries.

Decarbonizing production

More than half the world’s fertilizers are made using ammonia. Given that 99% of ammonia production is dependent on fossil-fuels, the first opportunity to reduce fertilizer emissions is by switching to lower carbon and renewable ammonia production. The decarbonization technological pathways focus on decarbonizing hydrogen production which accounts for the majority of emissions from ammonia production. They include:

  1. Replacing fossil natural gas with renewable and circular natural gas from waste.
  2. Replacing fossil hydrogen with renewable hydrogen produces from renewable electricity-powered electrolysis.
  3. Capturing and sequestering emissions from natural gas-based hydrogen production. These technologies are mature though at various stages of deployments and have higher cost compared to conventional fossil production.

Therefore, to catalyze ammonia production decarbonization, we need innovative approaches that will bridge “green premiums” while we scale the technologies and develop infrastructure that will ultimately bring the cost down. Europe and the US have set examples by providing demand and supply incentives, respectively, for low carbon and renewable ammonia production.  We also need pioneers to take the first steps in proving its feasibility and set an example for others to follow.

OCI Global is one of the few ISCC PLUS certified low-carbon and renewable ammonia producers in the world. We produce renewable ammonia from renewable electricity, and bio-ammonia from waste and will be commissioning a 1.1 mtpa low carbon ammonia facility in Texas in 2025 – the first of its kind globally.

And this renewable and lower carbon ammonia can be used to make lower carbon fertilizers. Our renewably produced CAN and Urea/UAN both achieve a carbon intensity reduction of between 50 and 70% compared to the industry average.

This year has been significant for us in terms of partnerships and pilots that have provided proof of concept for the industry in its decarbonization journey. These include a partnership with Agravis and Dossche Mills to pioneer the production of lower carbon wheat flour for use in everyday essential products, like bread.

Minimizing emissions on application

But tackling the production end of the value chain won’t be enough. One of the key objectives of the declaration is to contain and reduce the harmful impacts of agriculture and given that two-thirds of ammonia-based fertilizer emissions are generated after the fertilizer has been applied to the field, tackling emissions on application will be key.

Reducing emissions requires correct stewardship of fertilizer use to improve nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) and reduce both nitrous oxide emissions and nitrate leaching. Correct use of fertilizers can also protect soil health, as misuse can contribute to acidification, degradation or leaching into water supplies. 

We work with industry associations to educate farmers on fertilizer application and storage, provide digital resources, and to encourage sustainable farming. This includes supporting the 4R Nutrient Stewardship program through our membership in The Fertilizer Institute, which includes the Right fertilizer source applied at the Right rate, the Right time, and the Right place for a crop.  

Another way the fertilizer industry can support climate efforts is through the development of more advanced products. The use of urease and nitrification inhibitors can slow the conversion of nitrogen fertilizers to other nitrogen compounds in the soil, reducing the risk of loss through leaching or denitrification and thereby increasing the NUE of fertilizers.  Many studies over the years have shown that inhibitors consistently reduce nutrient losses, nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide emissions.  

Regulation can support a sustainable future for agriculture

At both ends of the value chain, the missing piece is regulatory support. Transitioning to lower carbon and renewable alternatives will cost more initially as the industry scales infrastructure, uses more expensive feedstocks, incorporates new technologies, and adjusts to new ways of working. The responsibility for shouldering that initial cost can’t fall on a single part of the ecosystem, and we won’t see change soon enough to face the twin challenges of climate change and food security if we rely on the voluntary efforts of a handful of pioneers. That’s why we were encouraged to see the declaration highlight the need specific regulation that spreads the cost across the whole value chain in a clear and simple way that incentivizes the industry to switch to low carbon and renewable alternatives and supports increased use of advanced, more efficient fertilizers.

Man in a field
Innovating together for impact

With our world’s population expected to grow by another fifth to just under 10 billion around 2050 and increasing pressure on arable land, fertilizers will only become more significant. At the same time, the need to reduce emissions is urgent, and while agriculture has a responsibility to play its part, regulators need to provide the supporting frameworks to make that happen in a way that protects farming communities and global food security.

The launch of the ‘COP28 UAE Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action’ and the support of 134 country leaders is a positive sign, but more is still needed. At the point of writing, the Global Stocktake of COP28 does not include actions on food systems transformation.

Only by acting together across the public and private sectors – and at both ends of the fertilizer value chain to reduce emissions from production and in application – can we maximize the impact of these interventions and ensure the sustainable use of nitrogen fertilizers playing a crucial role in growing food for future generations.  

Find out more about how OCI is stepping up to support food security and champion sustainable agriculture here.

This article was first published in World Fertilizer Magazine’s March 2024 issue

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