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Editorial comment

While sailing through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait on 18 February, a UK-owned, Belize-flagged ship carrying around 22 000 t of fertilizer was struck by missiles launched by the Houthi movement, as part of a campaign over Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. The strikes caused catastrophic damage to the ship, which is said to be the most severely impacted vessel since the rebel group began attacking Western commercial ships in November last year. After taking on water and suffering a fuel leak, the ship eventually sunk, leaving behind the threat of the vessel’s fertilizer load and fuel leaking into the Red Sea, and therefore the possibility of a monumental environmental disaster.1

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Julien Jreissati, Programme Director at Greenpeace MENA, has expressed huge concern over the impact a potential fertilizer spill could have on marine life and ocean food chains, as well as the Red Sea’s unique coral reefs.

“This disruption could have far-reaching consequences, affecting various species that depend on these ecosystems and, in turn, potentially impacting the very livelihoods of coastal communities,” Jreissati said. “Immediate access to the shipwreck site is imperative for an expert response team to assess the situation and swiftly devise and implement an emergency plan.”2

Recent weeks have also seen a significant fertilizer spill into the East Nishnabotna River in Iowa, after liquid nitrogen and ammonia leaked from a tank at NEW Cooperative. Contamination is said to extend to Missouri, where small, native species of fish have been killed, likely affecting the wider food chain.3

The uncertain fate of the Red Sea and damage to the ecosystem in Iowa serves as a stark reminder of the potentially detrimental effects of the fertilizer industry on our environment. Farmers have even reported fears that fertilizer has become a ‘dirty word’, having often taken the blame for poor water quality standards – but things may be about to change.4

The BBC recently reported on a flurry of companies looking to make fertilizer production more environmentally friendly. For some time, the sector has excitedly examined the concept of green ammonia, and with a number of start-ups now looking to demonstrate how clean and controllable production can be, a renewable fertilizer future is looking more and more viable.

Starfire Energy, for example, is working towards modular green ammonia production, seeking to reduce transportation emissions and increase efficiency by enabling production closer to the point of use. The technology required will be stored within spaces as small as shipping containers.

Jupiter Ionics has also recently received funding to accelerate its electrolysis technology and scale up a self-contained system that takes in renewable energy, air and water to produce ammonia for fertilizer production.5

While this all sounds promising, there are still barriers to a completely green ammonia economy. McKinsey & Company notes that significant renewables capacity expansion is necessary to ensure green power is both available and economical. Furthermore, producers are facing uncertainty over green ammonia prices – the higher costs of the product must be absorbed throughout the value chain and become more competitive with grey ammonia, in order for new projects to be considered worthwhile.6

Still, the concept of green ammonia is filled with potential and opportunity for the fertilizer industry and beyond. The challenge lies in harnessing this potential in order to transition to a carbon-neutral economy by 2050, a goal which can only be reached with the availability of renewable electricity, and scalable technological and policy solutions.

* References available upon request.

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