Saturday, September 29, 2012

Urea-Ammonium Nitrate Fertilizer

Liquid fertilizer solutions or fluid fertilizers are popular in many areas because they are safe to handle, convenient to mix with other nutrients and chemicals, and are easily applied. A solution of urea [CO(NH2)2] and ammonium nitrate [NH4NO3] containing between 28 and 32% N is the most popular N fluid fertilizer.

Liquid urea-ammonium nitrate (UAN) fertilizer is relatively simple to produce. A heated solution containing dissolved urea is mixed with a heated solution of ammonium nitrate to make a clear liquid fertilizer. Half of the total N comes from the urea solution and half from the ammonium nitrate solution. UAN is made in batches in some facilities or in a continual process in others. No emissions or waste products occur during mixing. 
Since UAN is a concentrated N solution, its solubility increases as the temperature rises. To prevent the N components from precipitating as crystals, UAN solutions are made more dilute in regions with cold winter temperatures. Therefore, the N concentration in commercial UAN fertilizers will vary from 28% N to 32% N depending on geography. A corrosion inhibitor is usually added to the final solution to protect the steel in storage tanks.

UAN fluid fertilizer
 Chemical Properties
Properties:                              28% N   30% N   32% N
Composition (% by weight)
Ammonium Nitrate                40            42            44
Urea                                        30            33            35 
Water                                      30             25           20
Salt-out temp (ºC)                 -18           -10           -2
(Crystal precipitation temperature)
Solution pH                        - - - - approximately 7 - - - -

 Agricultural Use

Solutions of UAN are widely used as a source of N for plant nutrition. The NO3- portion (25% of the total N) is immediately available for plant uptake. The NH4+ fraction (25% of the total N) can also be assimilated directly by most plants, but is rapidly oxidized by soil bacteria to form NO3-. The remaining urea portion (50% of the total N) is hydrolyzed by soil enzymes to form NH4+, which is subsequently transformed to NO3- in most soil conditions. 

Fluid fertilizer application
Solutions of UAN are extremely versatile as a source of plant nutrition. Due to its chemical properties, UAN is compatible with many other nutrients and agricultural chemicals, and is frequently mixed with solutions containing P, K, and other essen­tial plant nutrients. Fluid fertilizers can be blended to precisely meet the specific needs of a soil or crop. 
UAN solutions are commonly injected into the soil beneath the surface, sprayed onto the soil surface, dribbled as a band onto the surface, added to irrigation water, or sprayed onto plant leaves as a source of foliar nutrition. However, UAN may dam­age foliage if sprayed directly on some plants, so dilution with water may be needed.
UAN applied with fertigation

Management Practices
UAN makes an excellent source of N nutrition for plants. However, since half of the total N is present as urea, extra manage­ment may be required to avoid volatile losses. When UAN remains on the surface of the soil for extended periods (a few days), soil enzymes will convert the urea to NH4+, a portion of which can be lost as ammonia gas. Therefore, UAN should not remain on the soil surface for more than a few days in order to avoid significant loss. Inhibitors that slow these N transformations are sometimes added. When UAN is first applied to soil, the urea and the NO3- molecules will move freely with water in the soil. The NH4+ will be retained in the soil where it first contacts cation exchange sites on clay or organic matter. Within 2 to 10 days, most of the urea will be converted to NH4+ and no longer be mobile. The originally added NH4+ plus the NH4+ coming from urea will eventually be converted to NO3- by soil microorganisms.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Closing Yield Gaps?

What is a yield gap?  A recent article from the journal Nature states that closing the yield gap provides hope for feeding the global population in the future.

Maize yields- with and without fertilizer
A yield gap is used to describe the huge gap between crop yields obtained by successful farmers and those achieved by the average farmers.

Another term frequently used is ecological intensification.  This is the concept of closing this yield gap while minimizing the impacts of food production on soil degradation, water pollution, and wasting resources.  This concepts emphasizes intelligent food production that saves inputs and protects the environment (sustainable intensification).
A recent Nature article discusses the promise of this concept:

 Closing yield gaps through nutrient and water management

The authors report that it is possible to feed the whole world by 2050, even as population jumps by 2 billion to reach 9 billion and food demand will double from the present because of better living standards.

Preparing field for rice planting
The researchers from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and the University of Minnesota, US, gathered data from 157 countries and found that most of them suffered from a serious 'yield gap'. 

They found that global yield variability is heavily controlled by fertilizer use, irrigation and climate. Large production increases (45% to 70% for most crops) are possible from closing yield gaps to 100% of attainable yields, and the changes to management practices that are needed to close yield gaps vary considerably by region and current intensity. 

They conclude that meeting the food security and sustainability challenges of the coming decades is possible, but will require considerable changes in nutrient and water management.

Their focus on yield gaps helps us identify what plant nutrition and water availability factors are limiting global food production, but the contribution of improved genetics will also play a role.  Providing the necessary fertilizer to the areas where it is needed has proven to be a challenge.  There are considerable opportunities to improve irrigation efficiency, but there are physical limitations to global water availability.  

Closing the yield gap requires localized information on what is holding back productivity.  Gathering the necessary information is the first step.  Implementing that information through appropriate technology has generally proven to be a formidable barrier.

Soil productivity must be maintained

The International Plant Nutrition Institute has been active in identifying how soil fertility holds back the yields of major food crops (Agri-stats).  Another international group has launched the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas to identify areas where yield gaps can be narrowed (