Wednesday, January 18, 2023

SciShow examines ammonia, a molecule that has fed billions through fertilizer

A fact I repeat to my environmental science students is that synthetic fertilizers are responsible for growing enough crops to feed at least one billion people and are the number one reason for increased crop production. It turns out I may have been understating their importance as Hank Green of SciShow explains in This Molecule Has Saved Billions of Lives, How Do We Make It Without Killing Ourselves?.

Ammonia is extremely useful to us as a crucial ingredient in fertilizers. But producing it also has a significant carbon footprint, which is why scientists have been on the hunt for a way to make ammonia production greener.
As the subject line said, fertilizers have helped feed billions. The BBC went farther, quoting Svein Tore Holsether, head of fertilizer company Yara, reporting that "He pointed out that half of the world's food production is dependent on fertiliser." That was in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, about which Holsether told the BBC "Putin has weaponised energy and they're weaponising food as well." Yikes! That's a topic that deserves its own post.

Back to the SciShow video, which serves as an example of several of Commoner's Laws. First, there is no free lunch. Producing the ammonia for fertilizers comes with a cost, in this case, the effects on the climate. That ties into another law, everything must go somewhere, such as methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.* Finally, everything is connected to everything else, including the human population passing 8 billion being connected to ammonia through agriculture. Sorry, no nature knows best in this video. Even so, I still plan on showing this to my students. Welcome to blogging as professional development.

*SciShow didn't even mention the effects of excess fertilizer washing into the environment and causing eutrophication. That's a word I've never used on this blog before, which means I need to write a post about that, too.

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