Nitrogen Fertilizer: New Strategies for Low-energy, Low-emission Production and Use

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OPEN 2021
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Project Term:
08/30/2022 - 08/30/2025

Critical Need:

Bioeconomy crops require nitrogen (N) fertilizer for high biomass yields. The incumbent fertilizer process, Haber-Bosch (HB), requires high temperature and pressure and cannot be scaled down economically; fertilizer must be transported from centralized factories to farms. The production and application of fixed N consumes 1-3% of the global fossil fuel energy supply and is responsible for up to 3% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, including the release of nitrous oxide (N2O), which is roughly 265 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2). In addition, up to 60-80% of the applied N is lost to runoff or N2O volatilization—the loss of N through the conversion of ammonium to ammonia gas—which is released to the atmosphere.

Project Innovation + Advantages:

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) aims to develop technologies that can collectively replace N fertilizer derived from the HB process. Their approach uses biological N fixation performed by the plant or associated bacteria with current and future sources of synthetic N. Each of the approaches provides N to the crops at different times and impacts energy, yield, and emissions. If successful, these advances will eliminate the need for the energy intense HB-derived N from agriculture. The application of N fertilizer is critical to obtain high crop yields, and has directly contributed to the global rise in crop yields over the last 50 years, but advances need to be made to simultaneously meet N requirements and ambitious energy, climate and sustainability targets.

Potential Impact:

If successful, the proposed technologies will eliminate HB-derived nitrogen from agriculture.


Global N demand has been projected to double this century, due to increased food needs alone. MIT’s approach aims to provide all of the required fixed N on site.


The new technologies will eliminate a major source of global GHGs, including CO2 from HB and transportation fuels, and reduce N2O emissions.


The team will use a techno-economic model that will directly compare technologies and guide which approaches are viable, how they can be optimally combined, and when to use them or not. This model is specific to different agricultural conditions and can be applied to specific field data, including soil type, weather, and geography.


ARPA-E Program Director:
Dr. Steven Singer
Project Contact:
Christopher Voigt
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