British scientists have figured out a way to “unlock” vast amounts of nitrogen in the air to reduce our reliance on conventional fertilizer. Nitrogen is the most abundant element in the air and is a key catalyst for plant growth, but most plants (legumes are an exception) are unable to “pull” it directly out of the air, taking the nutrients from the soil instead. Fertilizers introduce nitrogen to most crops this way, but this new agri-tech breakthrough would allow plants to pull this valuable element out of the air itself. From the University of Nottingham’s press release:
Nitrogen fixation, the process by which nitrogen is converted to ammonia, is vital for plants to survive and grow. However, only a very small number of plants, most notably legumes (such as peas, beans and lentils) have the ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere with the help of nitrogen fixing bacteria. The vast majority of plants have to obtain nitrogen from the soil, and for most crops currently being grown across the world, this also means a reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. […]Speaking about the technology, which is known as ‘N-Fix’, [Professor Edward Cocking, Director of The University of Nottingham’s Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation] said: “Helping plants to naturally obtain the nitrogen they need is a key aspect of World Food Security. The world needs to unhook itself from its ever increasing reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilisers produced from fossil fuels with its high economic costs, its pollution of the environment and its high energy costs.”
If this kind of technology can be scaled up efficiently and cost-effectively, it could be an answer to the alarmists concerned that we won’t be able to grow enough crops to feed the growing word population. This is yet another reminder of the folly of predicting future trends based on current technology. The pace of technological innovation is growing, and that acceleration isn’t just affecting consumer technology like smartphones or laptops, it’s producing potential solutions like this one to some of the world’s more pressing future problems.
[Soybean field image courtesy of Shutterstock]