The three main components that plants require to grow are sunlight, water, and nutrients. However, plants need 17 different nutrients to be completely healthy. Three of them, carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen, come from air and water. Macronutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium must come from the soil. Each of the elements has an essential function in keeping a plant healthy.
Plants require these 17 nutrients in varying amounts depending on the plant. Even though they need smaller proportions of some than of others, they all play a critical role. Crops that do not have an adequate nutrient supply will be less healthy, grow less, and produce lower yields. If they are deficient enough, they might not even survive.
Adding nutrients to soil used for growing plants makes them healthier and boosts yields. They can also provide a boost to plant health and help them to succeed even in non-ideal conditions. When crops are repeatedly grown on a piece of land, they remove crucial nutrients from the soil. To keep the soil healthy, farmers must either wait for these elements to replenish over time or use fertilizers to help return these nutrients to the ground.
Fertilizers enable farmers to feed the world's growing population. The fertilizer industry in the United States also provides more than 89,000 direct jobs, indirectly supports 406,000 jobs, and generates more than $155 billion in economic activity each year, according to the Fertilizer Institute.
Inorganic fertilizers contain a range of naturally-occurring elements that plants need to survive. Obtaining these raw materials and making them into forms that people can apply to crops often requires mining and various chemical processes.
Before using fertilizers, it is important to understand the ingredients they comprise. Being informed about the chemicals that make up fertilizers can help you to use them effectively and responsibly and choose the right fertilizer for your needs.
What Is Fertilizer Made Of?
What are the ingredients in a fertilizer? The exact ingredients and the proportions of each of them vary between different types of fertilizer. The three main components all fertilizer mixture have, though, are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These products also contain clay based fillers and free flowing agent — which helps in spreading the fertilizer and prevents it from hardening — and other nutrients in smaller amounts.
The contents of fertilizers are described using the N-P-K formula, in which N is nitrogen, P is phosphorous, and K is potassium. In describing the contents of a bag of fertilizer, each symbol will be replaced by a number, such as, for example, 10-10-10. This description means that 10 percent of the bag's weight is made up of nitrogen, 10 percent is phosphorous, and 10 percent is potassium. In total, 30 percent of the bag's weight comes from these three main ingredients, which are known as macronutrients. The rest is filler and other, minor elements.
What Does Nitrogen Do in Fertilizer?
Nitrogen is critical to the growth of the plant. It is a component of many plant structures and enables various processes required for plant health. Plants that get adequate amounts of nitrogen will be a darker green color and grow faster than those that do not. When plants are deficient in nitrogen, their leaves yellow. Although nitrogen is present in the air, plants cannot absorb it from the atmosphere and must instead get it from the soil.
Nitrogen promotes foliage and stem growth. It is a central component of amino acids, which are the fundamental elements of proteins. These proteins are critical to plant growth as well as the development of tissues and cells. Nitrogen is also part of the nucleic acid that forms DNA, which stores genetic information and is responsible for passing on traits and characteristics through seeds. It is also a component of chlorophyll, which provides plants with their green color and enables growth. Because nitrogen is an element of proteins, DNA, and chlorophyll, it plays a role in the majority of vital plant processes.
Brenntag’s Nitrogen Stabilizers and/or Urease Inhibitors can be used to help decrease volatilization (keeping N from releasing into the atmosphere or “gas-off” into the atmosphere, ), denitrification-holding the N in Ammonia (NH3) form as long as possible and nitrogen leaching- protecting the N from falling beneath the root zone. If stabilizers or inhibitors are not used, a grower can see up to 40% of their Nitrogen investment lost
What Does Phosphorus Do in Fertilizer?
Phosphorous is essential to various plant processes including photosynthesis, the conversion of sunlight into energy. It is also responsible for moving energy throughout a plant and for respiration. It is a component of plants' nucleic acid structures, which control the synthesis of proteins. Because of this, phosphorous is significant for the development of new tissue and in cell division.
This element also aids in the production of fruit and flowers and the development of seeds and roots. It improves resistance to diseases, supports winter hardiness, and can help a plant grow faster.
In many cases, an agronomist will find phosphorus in a grower’s soil samples, however the phosphorus is tied up or “locked up” where the plant cannot uptake. Growers can alter tied up phosphorus, by applying Brenntag’s Phosphate Enhancer products.
What Does Potassium Do in Fertilizer?
Potassium is known for its impact on the quality of plants. It affects the size, color, taste, and shape of produce. Potassium's effect is also crucial for tolerance to drought and other harsh weather as well as stress. It also plays an integral role in various plant processes. Potassium does the following:
- Aids in root development, flowering, fruiting, and stem growth.
- Helps facilitate the movement of water throughout the plant, a process known as osmoregulation. It affects the uptake of water as well as its loss through the stomata.
- Adjusts water pressure inside and outside of plant cells
- Assists in regulating plant metabolism
- Controls the opening and closing of stomata, which regulates carbon dioxide (CO2) uptake, in photosynthesis
- Triggers the activation of many of the growth-related enzymes
- Is crucial for the production of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), which is the energy source for many chemical processes that take place in plants
- Is essential for the synthesis of protein and starch
Other Nutrients Found in Fertilizer
The other nutrients found in fertilizers fall into two categories: secondary nutrients and micronutrients. Most plants need smaller amounts of secondary nutrients than they do macronutrients, and they require micronutrients in even smaller quantities still. Although plants need less of these nutrients, they still perform vital roles.
Secondary nutrients include calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S):
- Calcium reduces the acidity of soil and helps the plant absorb nutrients. It also improves disease resistance and supports cell division, cell wall formation, and the activation of enzyme systems related to plant growth.
- Magnesium is necessary for photosynthesis. As an element of chlorophyll, it also helps the plant to metabolize phosphorous. It impacts crop quality, plant development and aids in the production of oils, fats, and sugars.
- Sulfur helps plants to synthesize various amino acids and proteins. It is an essential component of chlorophyll as well and helps promote hardiness through winter. Additionally, it helps to decrease nitrate and non-protein nitrogen build-up in the plant. It improves the structure and water filtration in the soil, too.
Micronutrients together support various aspects of plant growth and contribute to increasing yields, improving structural integrity, and producing vitamins. You may find the following micronutrients in fertilizers:
- Boron (B) helps move sugars from the roots to the rest of the plant, assists in cell division, and helps with amino acid production.
- Chlorine (Cl) aids in plant metabolism, disease resistance, and photosynthesis.
- Copper (Cu) activates enzymes and helps with protein synthesis and the creation of chlorophyll.
- Iron (Fe) is required for the production of chlorophyll and is a component of enzymes.
- Manganese (Mn) also contributes to chlorophyll production and activates enzymes.
- Molybdenum (Mo) reduces nitrates to help with protein synthesis.
- Nickel (Ni) is also necessary for the creation of chlorophyll.
- Zinc (Zn) activates enzymes and helps with plant hormone balance.
The fillers in fertilizers are inactive ingredients and do not affect the plant. They do, however, reduce the concentration of the nutrients so that they do not burn the plants, prevent the nutrients from clumping and drying, and make the mixture easier to spread. Typical filler materials include sand, granular limestone, sawdust, sterile or clean dirt, and ground corn cobs.
Types of Fertilizer
Different crops need varying amounts of the 17 nutrients to thrive, so farmers often use fertilizers formulated especially for the kind of plants they are growing. They typically conduct soil tests to determine which nutrient levels they need to increase. These findings can influence the chemical proportions that someone uses.
Fertilizers can also be either synthesized or organic. Synthesized fertilizers come in various forms, namely granular and liquid form. Each type has different properties that make them ideal for different situations:
Granular fertilizers are in the form of solid granules. They must dissolve or decompose before plants can get their nutrients, so it typically takes at least few days and watering for them to start to take effect. These fertilizers are worked into the soil to improve plants' access to the nutrients.
Slow-release, timed-release or controlled-release, can last for several months depending on the formula used. The nutrients in these varieties have a coating or impregnation throughout the granular that breaks down over time, controlling the release of the nutrients. They deliver nutrients in small amounts, which plants can readily absorb, so less of the nutrients go to waste through volatilization, denitrification or leaching. They also enable you to reduce the frequency with which you apply fertilizer to crops.
Other fertilizers come in the form of liquid concentrates or water-soluble powders. Concentrates can be a reacted chemistry or are simply mixed with water before applying. Plants can absorb the nutrients from these fertilizers immediately. These nutrients are useful for giving plants a quick boost as a pre-emergent during planting to help assist with seed germination, helping the seed’s initial growth stage. They can also be applied after planting via foliar applying on the crops, to provide the plant timely nutrients.
Organic fertilizers and Organic Soil Ammendments come from natural sources, meaning they are made from or by living things rather than synthesized. These types of fertilizers include humic substances, compost, manure, fish emulsions, blood meal, cottonseed meal, feather meal, and treated sewage product as well as other naturally-occuring substances. For the nutrients in these substances to be accessible to plants, the microbes in the soil must break the materials down. Biological, Geological and Chemical Activity is an influential factor in the replication of essential microbes and bacterial growth.
These organic substances add the same nutrients to the soil that chemical fertilizers do, but you can not control the proportions of each nutrient in the material. Organics are also slow-releasing, and there is no option for an immediate release like water-soluble fertilizers. Organic options can improve soil structure and water-holding capacity as well as reduce erosion and soil crusting. They tend to have lower nutrient density than synthesized alternatives. Compared to non-organics, they do not add as much salt and acid to soil and, therefore, provide better support to soil microbes, good bacterial growth, earthworms, and other flora.
History of the Use of Fertilizer
People have been adding fertilizers to soil on farms since the early years of agriculture, although the first substances used were organic materials such as animal manure. Researchers have found evidence of fertilizer use dating back to 8,000 years ago.
As agriculture progressed, farmers learned more about the use of fertilizers. In ancient Egypt, they used the ashes created by burning weeds. In Ancient Greece and Rome, farmers used manures. Early writings show that they used manure from different animals based on the type of crop they were growing. Other early fertilizers included vegetative waste, seashells, and waste from manufacturing processes.
In the early 17th century, people began to perform organized research into fertilizer use. Francis Bacon wrote about the benefits of adding saltpeter to farmland. Scientist Johann Glauber also researched using saltpeter as a fertilizer and created the first complete mineral fertilizer. His formula included saltpeter, nitrogen, phosphoric acid, lime, and potash. Eventually, scientists learned more about the chemical requirements of plants. Scientist Justus von Liebig showed that plants need nitrogen and phosphorous to grow. Discoveries such as this led to further refined fertilizer formulas.
In 1842, Sir John Lawes filed for a patent for a process to produce superphosphate using phosphate rock and sulfuric acid. He then opened the first fertilizer factory, marking the beginning of the synthetic fertilizer industry. He also founded the first agricultural research station, Rothamsted Experimental Station. Along with Sir Henry Gilbert, Lawes continued to study fertilizers extensively.
After World War I, facilities that manufactured ammonia and synthetic nitrates for use in explosives converted to fertilizer factories, giving the artificial fertilizer industry a substantial boost.
The fertilizer industry continues to progress. Current research often focuses on making fertilizers more environmentally friendly by reducing the potential for runoff into water sources as well as improving application methods and developing more concentrated formulas. Research is also exploring new sources of fertilizers, especially organic options that can be produced sustainably.
How Is Fertilizer Made?
Manufacturers obtain the nutrients used in fertilizers from various sources, often through mining or other forms of extraction. The sources then go through processes to isolate the nutrients and convert them into usable forms before combining and packaging them into fertilizer mixtures.
Fertilizer manufacturers extract nitrogen from the atmosphere through a process that results in the production of ammonia. This process involves pumping natural gas and steam, followed by air, into a large vessel. Burning off the natural gas and steam removes the oxygen from the air. Introducing an electric current takes the carbon dioxide out of the air, resulting in the production of ammonia. Further processes may be applied to remove any impurities.
Ammonia can be used as a fertilizer directly, but it is often converted into other substances to make handling easier. For example, manufacturers convert ammonia into nitric acid through a process that uses catalysts in the presence of air and water. Combining ammonia and nitric acid creates ammonium nitrate, which has a high nitrogen concentration.
Phosphorous can be found in phosphate rock. To use the phosphate, though, you must isolate it from the ore. A typical method of achieving this is through the use of sulfuric acid, which produces phosphoric acid. Then the substance is reacted with sulfuric acid and nitric acid, which produces triple superphosphate. Manufacturers also blend phosphoric acid with ammonia, which creates ammonium phosphate.
Potassium used in fertilizer comes from potash, the term for the various potassium-containing minerals and compounds. The name comes from an early technique of obtaining potassium, which involved collecting wood ash in metal pots.
Most of the potash used in agriculture today is mined from rocks such as sylvinite, which formed when ancient seas evaporated, leaving concentrated minerals behind. Processors crush the rock, then use a flotation process to remove salt and clay before allowing the brine to dry and sizing it through screening. Potassium chloride, potassium sulfate, potassium-magnesium sulfate, potassium thiosulfate, and potassium nitrate are all sources of potassium for fertilizer, with potassium chloride being the most prominent.
Secondary nutrients and micronutrients are also obtained through processes that often involve mining and processing. Calcium, for example, comes from limestone in the form of calcium carbonate, calcium sulfate, or calcium magnesium carbonate. Magnesium is sourced from dolomite. Sulfur is often a byproduct of other industrial processes.
Processing the Materials
After manufacturers extract the raw elements, the material is shipped via barge to storage facilities throughout the world then supplied and sold in solid form from barge- bag quantity. Elements in liquid or gas forms will typically be transported through pipelines, railcars or bulk trucks.
Fertilizer retailers mix the nutrients according to their formulas to create N-P-K fertilizer mixtures depending on soil deficiencies, often blending them in a large mixing containers. These containers rotate in highly precise manners to produce mixtures to the required specifications.
Throughout the production process, manufacturers monitor the quality of their products and conduct various physical and chemical tests to ensure they meet specifications. They may check pH, melting point, density, and chemical tests. Government regulation requires tests as well to verify the contents of these products.
Fertilizer Chemicals From Brenntag
As the global market leader in chemical and ingredient distribution, Brenntag is your trusted source for chemicals used in the production of fertilizers. We also focus on humic substances, nitrogen stablizers, urease inhibitors and phosphate enhancers. We have over 190 distribution locations throughout the United States and Canada and offer more than 10,000 high-quality products. We also provide a range of value-added services including product mixing, formulation, custom packaging, just-in-time delivery, and inventory management.
At Brenntag, we care about making the world a better place through the safe and effective use of chemical ingredients, building relationships, and supporting our partners through outstanding service. We are committed to connecting the right suppliers with the right customers and helping them to succeed in today's ever-changing market.
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Brenntag would love to be your one-stop shop for fertilizer chemicals, humic substances, nitrogen stabilizers, urease inhibitors and phosphate enhancers. To learn more about the products and services we offer, please explore our website. Speak with a member of our team to get your questions answered and get started with finding the chemicals solution that is right for you today.