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Fertilisers in the air

More than a third of fertiliser use is breaking government emissions thresholds
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Aerial view of a tractor towing an applicator is spraying liquid fertiliser on a late spring corn field

Some nitrogen fertiliser types spread on UK farmland are ending up in the atmosphere, with the worst offenders emitting on average 18% of the applied nitrogen fertiliser as ammonia gas into the air.

In a study published in Environmental Chemistry, researchers from the University of Birmingham reviewed ammonia emissions from different synthetic nitrogen fertilisers.

They found that uninhibited urea fertilisers, usually used to increase crop production, were the worst culprits for ammonia emissions.

In some cases, the amount of fertiliser that ended up emitted into the atmosphere was 77%.

‘A grim matter’

Emissions from these types of fertiliser are often exceeding the expected current maximum emissions factor of 8%. This is the figure used to estimate national ammonia emissions from agriculture.

The data suggest that 34% of synthetic non-urea fertilisers studied are exceeding these thresholds.

In the UK, agriculture is the dominant source of ammonia emissions, accounting for around 85% annually.

‘Among plant available nitrogen species, ammonium in soils is a key nutrient for crops upon which our food security depends. The uptake efficiency of crops for nutrients including ammonium is relatively poor, ranging from 20% to 50% on average globally, so a substantial amount of the applied fertiliser is prone to losses from soils including ammonia volatilisation into air.

‘While ammonia is a very good nutrient to have in soils, its emission into air is a grim matter.  Emissions of ammonia pose numerous ecological and human health concerns. For example, plant species like mosses and lichens in peatbogs and forests are vulnerable to excessive ammonia being re-deposited back on land, which threatens ecological functioning in otherwise nitrogen-scarce natural ecosystems. Once in air, ammonia can also react with other atmospheric pollutants forming particulate matter, which results in serious health problems in humans.’

University of Birmingham, senior author of the paper

A grand challenge

Ammonia emissions reduction, particularly from agricultural ecosystems is a grand challenge; emission reductions of only 14% have been achieved since 1980, and the UK government’s ammonia emission reduction target for 2020 has not been met.

In the study, emissions from synthetic nitrogen fertilisers were reviewed by fertiliser type, land use and soil characteristics to identify areas for policy and management emission reduction interventions.

The findings shows that ammonia emissions ranged from -4.0 to 77.0% of the applied nitrogen fertiliser types.

The research team noted that urease and combined urease and nitrification inhibitors (chemicals added to fertilisers that reduces nitrogen gas losses including ammonia emission from soils) significantly reduced emissions by 74.5% and 70 %, respectively, compared with uninhibited urea fertilisers.

‘Ammonia emissions are a significant problem in the UK, this shows that extensive field studies are needed to improve our understanding of this grand challenge.

‘A series of interventions are needed such as selecting crop types with high nutrient use efficiencies, testing soils before fertilisation to match crop demands with available fertilisers and even considering the economic feasibility of emerging nano-fertiliser technologies to achieve efficiency, sustainable production and air quality protection.’

Lead author, University of Birmingham

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