Photochemistry and a New Catalyst Could Make Fertilizer More Sustainable

Closeup view of a red tractor spreading fertilizer pellets in a field.

Georgia Tech engineers are working to make fertilizer more sustainable — from production to productive reuse of the runoff after application — and a pair of new studies is offering promising avenues at both ends of the process.

In one paper, researchers have unraveled how nitrogen, water, carbon, and light can interact with a catalyst to produce ammonia at ambient temperature and pressure, a much less energy-intensive approach than current practice. The second paper describes a stable catalyst able to convert waste fertilizer back into nonpolluting nitrogen that could one day be used to make new fertilizer.

Significant work remains on both processes, but the senior author on the papers, Marta Hatzell, said they’re a step toward a more sustainable cycle that still meets the needs of a growing worldwide population.

“We often think it would be nice not to have to use synthetic fertilizers for agriculture, but that’s not realistic in the near term considering how much plant growth is dependent on synthetic fertilizers and how much food the world’s population needs,” said Hatzell, associate professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering. “The idea is that maybe one day you could manufacture, capture, and recycle fertilizer on site."

Get the full story on the College of Engineering website.

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Joshua Stewart
College of Engineering