Something to Think About:  Fertilizer
Passion for Change

Something to Think About: Fertilizer

Rosemary Jackson  •  

The Surprising Fertilizer Story

Plowing through the history of fertilizer, The Alchemy of Air by Thomas Hager reveals the booms and busts as natural global nitrogen sources used as fertilizers were depleted one after the other with devastating effects on the ability to supply food to a booming population during the 18 and early 1900s.

Soil quality depletes with over-usage. Until the early 1800’s using handy manure or rotating crops between something like oats and nitrogen fixing beans worked well enough to replenish the leached-out nitrogen all plants need to survive and more importantly thrive. Because as the world-wide human count grew and people left the farms to work in the new industrial revolution, food scarcity became a threatening issue.

Then off the coast of Peru, in the early 19th century, guano was found. Bird poop to a depth of 200 feet. The Chincha Islands had a nitrate rich offering that was mined down within years. In 1856, the US government even passed the Guano Islands Act which essentially said any American could claim an unoccupied guano island for the United States. They did and the US still has them annexed.

Bird droppings don’t rebuild quickly. The cry of soil exhaustion went up again. Explorers knew about another option, the Atacama, the world’s largest nitrate deposits in a huge salt desert in Chile. Well, back in the mid-1800's it was in Peru. Several naval battles and a revolution later, the Atacama was claimed from Peru by Chile. It was the guano scarcity that made scrapping and treating the salt flats economical.

Of course, there’s greed and governments, people who work the system and those that suffer. Transitions come at a cost. Swings in economies destroy countries, start wars, and change the balance of powers. Geopolitical stressors in South America made the Atacama trade difficult to manage.

Then, through a muddle of academic intrigue, inert N2 found in the air was isolated to create a potentially forever source of nitrogen. Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch working jointly in Germany in 1909 converted atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia using high temperatures and even higher pressures in the presence of a metal catalyst. No longer tied to guano or fields of South American salt crystals, fertilizer became an inexpensive commodity and food, up until this very moment, plentiful.

Oh, and the Haber-Bosch discovery made industrial scale explosives a reality, just in time for World War I.

The Not so Surprising Oil and Gas Story

The potential scarcity of energy or high enough cost to change whole economies looms on our horizon. Alternative energy sources are untested on a large scale. Geopolitical concerns destabilize oil and gas prices. Carbon emissions threaten the climate of our planet. The oil and gas industry is under pressure to stem a tide that could be very reminiscent of the fertilizer fever.

Unconventionals still hang in the balance as our best economic defense against real or forced scarcity. Those shale basins have put our nation ahead as one of the largest producers of oil. With the right understanding of the rock, oil and gas engineers globally can create an economically viable energy resource from shale reservoirs until alternative possibilities mature.

And to protect our climate, we need to have a better estimate of carbon reserves. The procedures that need to be used to curtail carbon emission pollution must go hand in hand with anticipated future emissions from carbon reserves.

Now What do We Do?

There are two things that need to happen simultaneously.

We need to make shale economic. That answer lies in hydraulic fracturing based on geomechanics using an understanding of drainage to estimate production in an optimized pad. Oil and gas companies ask themselves, what can I do now with prices moving upwards but still anticipating the cyclical nature of a future downward trend? The answer is figure out your pad economics within the drainage and stress scenarios that exist now, in the rock that you need to know better.

And carbon reserves have to be estimated. This carbon intensity is the anticipated carbon emissions per unit of energy or per barrel. The reduction of emissions will be understood through related data and visualized in a decline analysis that is optimized in the same way as forecasts of oil, gas, and water.

With a plan to optimize shale reservoirs and with a system to analyze the impact of future reserves, there is a hope to forestall what seems inevitable when scarcity impacts society. And there is always a hope that we can pluck the next technological answer out of thin air.

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