Democratising Access to Sustainable Nitrogen Fertilisers 

Published: May 30, 2024

In this guest article, we are joined by Dr Burak Karadag, the Chief Technology Officer at DEBYE Ltd. The UK Agri-Tech Centre is working with this innovative start-up on a groundbreaking project harnessing lightning’s nitrogen-fixing properties. Originally an aerospace engineer, Burak is now using his expertise in the agri-tech space, exploring advances and applications of new and innovative sustainable nitrogen fertilisers and other technologies to global food and farming challenges. 

The challenge 

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has the world’s fastest urbanisation rate, and its population is set to double over the next 30 years. The rapidly growing population, urbanisation and rising income levels will increase demand for agricultural crops and thus the demand for synthetic nitrogen fertiliser will soar.  

The 2006 Abuja Declaration on fertiliser called for a substantial increase in average fertiliser use, from eight to 50 kilograms per hectare (kg/ha) by 2015. However, average fertiliser use in SSA remains at only 17 kg/ha according to International Fertilizer Association (IFA), far from the global average of 135 kg/ha. 

Effects of subsidy programs remains limited as there is no assurance of sustainable procurement due to non-transparent allocation and distribution practices. An example of this is fertiliser diversion into secondary markets. There is a great need for affordable nitrogen fertiliser as access is a key impediment to solving long-standing   hunger and poverty on the continent.  

What if small-holder farmers could produce their own nitrogen fertiliser at point of need? Decentralising the fertiliser production would democratise access to fertilisers, promote economic development through improved crop yields and let some of the poorest members of society move away from purely subsistence farming to market sales within the local economy and wider international food chain supply.  

The innovation 

The Haber–Bosch industrial process to produce nitrogen fertiliser is not suitable for micro-scale decentralised production (< 1 metric tonne Nitrogen per year) due to the prohibitive capital requirements associated with multi-stage and the high temperature/pressure characteristics of the process. Fortunately, nature has an elegant solution this challenging problem: lightning. 

When lightning strikes, the intense energy causes the atmospheric nitrogen molecules to break apart and re-form into nitrogen dioxide molecules. Nitrogen dioxide molecules dissolve in surrounding water to form nitrate ions that fall to the ground as rain. Everyday millions of lightning strikes result in tonnes of nitrate, leading to an incredible, free fertiliser shower from the sky.  

This direct nitrogen capture process, also known as the electric arc method or plasma-based nitrogen fixation, was first described by Henry Cavendish in the 18th century. With the advent of practical electricity generation in the early 20th century, it became one of the competing industrial processes for producing nitrogen compounds but was phased out from the 1930s onward in favour of the Haber-Bosch process.  

The solution 

Today the direct nitrogen capture process is experiencing renewed interest, particularly in the context of sustainability as it is compatible with integration in renewable energy generation. It is a single-stage and low temperature/pressure process that eliminates the need for ammonia/hydrogen production, with scope to reduce the capital requirements by a few orders of magnitude. However, this process is currently four times more expensive than the Haber-Bosch process due to its high electricity consumption.

I believe this can be achieved by the end of this decade with well-funded systematic research and development programmes. In collaboration with the UK Agri-Tech Centre, DEBYE Ltd are taking the first step towards the holy grail of nitrogen fertiliser production with the Innovate UK and BBSRC-funded feasibility project looking at harnessing lightning’s nitrogen fixing properties. 

There is a huge commercial potential in working on this challenge, but also the opportunity to affect real change in global food security and impact in the national and international supply chain. DEBYE stands at the forefront, representing the UK’s response to advancements in this field.

The UK Agri-Tech Centre is working in collaboration with Debye Ltd on the electric nitrogen feasibility project, providing use of our vertical farming facility at Stockbridge Technology Centre, alongside project management and life-cycle analysis.

To learn more about Sustainable Nitrogen Fertilisers, how we can work together to innovate and grow within the agricultural sector, or how we can make your ambitions a reality, get in touch at: