The world’s population, fast approaching the ten billion mark, is a milestone to be reached around 2050, so increasing global agricultural output by mid-century should be a priority if everyone on Earth is to be fed. Strangling the supply of natural gas and ammonia — and consequently the amount of fertilizer produced — is certainly disadvantageous toward that end, yet that is nonetheless what ill-advised proposed sanctions against hydraulic fracking would entail. We need to come to the realization that natural gas makes the world go round.
The planet’s fast-growing population presents numerous challenges, yet humanity has faced similar daunting tests in the past and has always overcome them. It’s estimated, for example, that two out of every five people today wouldn’t exist without the potato having been introduced as a global staple beginning in the 16th century. More than a few pampered people in the West, their food seeming to magically appear on their plates and never having experienced hunger and privation, might shrug and tend to dismiss.
The formidable complexities involved in delivering the daily bread to multitudes had once been a topic of unsurpassed concern, but now it hardly resonates that urgently for those who take their sustenance for granted. Nonetheless, even as the lowly potato deserves humanity’s sincerest appreciation, it wasn’t a newly discovered tuber in the New World that produced the greatest change in the course of the history of feeding mankind, but a great watershed which took place as World War I was raging and natural gas helps ease this stress.
With Germany cut off from nitrates abroad, materials needed for the armaments industry, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch achieved the miracle of pulling the precursor of explosives — and fertilizer — from thin air, from the inexhaustible ocean of nitrogen: the gas composing 78% of
Earth’s atmosphere. The Haber-Bosch process is the means by which inert nitrogen in the air, an element that is everywhere but which reacts to form chemical compounds only reluctantly, is heated and pressurized with hydrogen to form ammonia, the most basic of nitrogen compounds.
Of the species of bacteria able to fix nitrogen — bonding it with other elements — only a few are intimately associated with plants such as rhizobia, for example, living in the root systems of legumes. Every living thing, however, requires these nitrates since the double-helixes of the DNA in the chromosomes of all plants and animals most critically can’t be constructed without nitrogenous bases.
For the entire duration of the history of life on Earth, access to fixed nitrogen was an unbreakable ceiling for how much life could thrive on the planet. Whatever was produced by the few genera of microscopic organisms and through lightning strikes, determined the extent of the world’s larder.
Farmers in the past made do as best they could with manure and rotating crops with nitrogen-
fixing root bacteria to squeeze the most out of their fields. So, what two German chemists accomplished in pulling the precursor of explosives from the ether to arm the Kaiser’s armies also turned out to be the seminal event in feeding the planet over the last century.
Naturally generated fixed nitrogen last year, and every year, supports a population of approximately 3.8 billion people, yet there are over 7.5 billion of us, giving rise to one of the most astounding facts: Half of the nitrogen compounds in the DNA of the chromosomes of all thirty trillion cells in our bodies — half of it — is artificial, cooked up in ammonia factories around the world, meaning half of us wouldn’t be here without the Haber process.
Some half-a-billion tons of fertilizer is produced via the Haber process every year, requiring 2% of the world’s energy to apply the heat and pressure demanded to force nitrogen pumped from the air to bond with hydrogen to form ammonia. To acquire that hydrogen, an astonishing 5% of the world’s natural gas production, methane — two-thirds of which in the U.S. is extracted by hydraulic fracturing of subterranean rock layers with pressurized fluids — is fed into chambers and mixed with steam where both compounds react to give up their hydrogen components.
That’s how the world is fed, so those calling for an end to everything — no cars, no meat, no oil, no aviation, no coal, no gasoline, no steel, no plastic, no methane, no fracking — are naively appealing for no people as well, or at least fewer than are currently walking on Earth now. Half would have to go, if not you then me, since not all of us can survive a return to the epochs when our food ceiling was at levels imposed back in the Stone Age and before, when it was rhizobia bacteria and lightning that held sway over humanity and not the other way around and this is why natural gas makes the world go round.
David Nabhan is the author of Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology (Skyhorse Publishing, NY, 2017) and three other books on seismology. He writes bi-weekly science columns for both Newsmax (“Shaking Up Science”) and the Times of Israel (“Tectonic Shifts”) and has authored hundreds of papers, articles and op-eds published all over the world. Website: www.earthquakepredictors.com Contact: [email protected]