British low-carbon fertilisers: breaking reliance on gas

How can innovation in fertiliser production and use support farmers to transition from fossil fuels?

By Pawel Kisielewski, CEO of CCm Technologies

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The war in Ukraine has caused unimaginable global consequences, one of which is the pressing energy crisis, and concerns over food security. One area that needs immediate attention is fertiliser production, with our current usage heavily reliant on Russia and Belarus (as the world’s leading fertiliser producers).

How are gas and fertilisers linked?

One of the raw ingredients in conventional chemical fertilisers is natural gas. As gas prices have rocketed, so have the prices of these fertilisers. They rose in 2021 due to gas price rises, and now geopolitical tensions have sent them to new highs. In March 2022, as fighting continued in Ukraine, the prices of fertilisers were reported to have reached £1000 per tonne, more than three times higher than 2020 prices. Global chemical fertiliser production uses around 1.8% of all energy and releases around 1.8% of all global emissions.

UK agriculture is responsible for 10% of the UK’s emissions, with some of these emissions coming from fertilisers that are applied to soils. But the emissions released by the manufacture of imported fertiliser aren’t counted in these emissions. According to major fertiliser producer Yara, 1kg of conventional nitrate fertiliser is responsible for 5.6kg of greenhouse gases. The 967,000 tonnes of nitrate fertilisers the UK uses every year release around 5.4 million tonnes of greenhouse gases. As the UK seeks to cut farming’s impact on climate change, it’s more important than ever to look at the greenhouse gases released by fertilisers.

One way to remove our dependence on Russian exports is by urgently scaling up our own supply of domestic, low-carbon fertiliser. This can help to increase UK food security.

How might a low carbon alternative fertiliser work?

CCm Technologies has developed and commercialised a patented process that can help solve this challenge. The process uses captured CO2 from industrial processes, with sludge from water treatments (after it has been through an anaerobic digestion plant) and converts that into reliable, stable, and precisely formulated fertiliser that can be delivered as pellets, which can be stored and used by the farmers as they need. Our fertiliser production has multiple benefits including:

  1. Increasing energy security by breaking the fertiliser link with gas
  2. Cutting carbon emissions associated with conventional fertiliser by more than 80%
  3. Significant international export potential, enabling the UK to showcase leadership in the agriculture and decarbonisation sectors
  4. Ensuring more nutrients are retained in the soil, building long-term soil health, capturing CO2 and reducing run-off into water courses.

What impact would low-carbon fertiliser have on UK economy and emissions?

At scale, this commercial solution, can help us wean ourselves off dependence on global gas markets. We are also creating green jobs as part of the low-carbon economy here in the UK. Our calculations suggest that CCm fertiliser units using waste streams from the four of the UK’s second largest water utility sewage treatment works alone could deliver 120,000 tonnes of circular economy UK manufactured fertiliser. If these units were also placed at other water utilities across the country, there is the potential for them to produce up to half a million tonnes of fertiliser. This would meet around one third of UK annual chemical fertiliser production.

Additionally, 50 standard CCm units could result in emissions saving avoidance equivalent to removing 375,000 cars from the road each year. By switching to biogenically derived alternatives for agricultural resourcing the UK would save over half a billion tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2050.

CCm’s technologies can be deployed immediately and via the delivery mechanisms that currently supply UK agriculture. By using wastes as raw ingredients and a low-energy manufacturing process, the sale price of CCm’s materials is directly competitive with existing products and is financially viable without reliance on government subsidies.

What policies might boost low-carbon fertilisers?

However, government can still support and promote the adoption of this technology through the inclusion of sustainable fertilisers in the upcoming Environmental Land Management scheme, and by making changes to current waste regulations to standardise the use of sustainable fertilisers made from slurries.

The global fertiliser industry is worth some $200bn a year with demand set to grow by 5% annually for at least the next six years (Research Dive Analysis, 2021). At the same time, current agricultural processes produce around 10% of all UK greenhouse gases. This industry’s growth, coupled with its current emissions, is not compatible with the UK’s net zero goals and the government, and farmers, can now make use of readily available proven technologies that can both help with food security and emissions reduction.

Pawel Kisielewski is the CEO of CCm Technologies, a UK clean tech company. He has over 25 years’ investment banking experience and previously served in H.M. Forces.