21 Fertilizer History

1669 The German alchemist Hennig Brand attempts to create the fabled philosopher’s stone via the distillation of salts from evaporated urine. In the process he produced a white material that glowed in the dark and burned brightly. It was named phosphorus mirabilis.

1772 Elemental nitrogen – symbol N, atomic number 7 – is discovered and isolated by Scottish physician Daniel Rutherford. Nitrogen is one of three main macronutrients along with phosphorus and potassium.

1790 The first ever US patent was filed for a procedure to produce pot-ash. Potash-derived fertilizers constitute the single greatest industrial use of the element potassium. The word “potassium” itself is derived from “potash.”

1800 Twenty-four hectares of arable land are needed to feed one person for a year.

1879-1883 The increased importance of mineral fertilizers in crop production is a primary cause of the War of the Pacific, aka the War of the Saltpetre. A 220-mile long deposit of guano (fixed nitrogen laid down in bird excrement) is contested by Chile, Bolivia, and Peru with North American and European colonial forces engaged by proxy.

1900 The amount of arable land required to feed one person for a year is reduced to two hectares. Ninety percent of the US population lives on farms.

1910 The Haber-Bosch process is an artificial nitrogen fixation procedure that remains the primary industrial means by which ammonia is produced today. Named for its inventors, the German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, it converts atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia by way of a reaction using hydrogen and a metal catalyst at high temperatures.

1935 Eight hundred and fifty tons of soil are blown off from the over-grazed and over-plowed US plains, affected by years of severe drought.

1961 41kg of fertilizer are used per hectare in the United States.

1981 107kg of fertilizer are used per hectare in the United States.

1985 The “dead zone” caused by agricultural runoff from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico has achieved an average size of 5,309 square miles (the size of the state of New Jersey) every year since records began.

2008 0.7 hectares of arable land and 1500 litres of oil are required to feed one person for a year. Two percent of the US population lives on farms.

2017 Fertiliser production accounts for 29 percent of total energy consumption in agriculture and roughly 2 percent of energy overall. Fertilizer use has increased by 800 percent since the Green Revolution.

2020 A powerful explosion at the city of Beirut’s main harbour is caused by the ignition of ammonium nitrate inappropriately stored in a nearby deposit.

2021 Of all the nitrogen in the muscles and organs of humans, almost half of it was created in a fertilizer factory.