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Nitrogen gas (N2) makes up 78.1% of the Earth’s air, by volume.[1]

All plants need nitrogen to grow. Synthetically-produced nitrates (one central nitrogen atom surrounded by three identical oxygen atoms) are key ingredients of industrial fertilizers, and also key pollutants in causing the eutrophication, or serious depletion in oxygen, of many water systems. Crops do not assimilate all of the nitrogen that is added to the soil; in the U.S., less than half of the applied nitrogen is taken up and used by crops. Excess nitrogen from farm fields, in the form of nitrate, washes into major bodies of water and nourishes vast blooms of algae that are consumed by bacteria, depleting the oxygen in the water and causing “dead zones” where marine populations cannot survive. Nitrate also contaminates drinking water wells.[2]

Use as Industrial fertilizer

Fertilizers are broadly divided into organic fertilizers (composed of enriched organic matter—plant or animal), or inorganic fertilizers (composed of synthetic chemicals and/or minerals). Inorganic fertilizer is often synthesized using the Haber-Bosch process, which produces ammonia as the end product. This ammonia is used as a feedstock for other nitrogen fertilizers, such as anhydrous ammonium nitrate and urea. These concentrated products may be diluted with water to form a concentrated liquid fertilizer (e.g. UAN). Ammonia can be combined with rock phosphate and potassium fertilizer in the Odda Process to produce compound fertilizer.[3][4]

The use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers has increased steadily in the last 50 years, rising almost 20-fold to the current rate of 100 million tonnes of nitrogen per year.[5] The use of phosphate fertilizers has also increased from 9 million tonnes per year in 1960 to 40 million tonnes per year in 2000. A maize crop yielding 6-9 tonnes of grain per hectare requires 31–50 kg of phosphate fertilizer to be applied, soybean requires 20–25 kg per hectare.[6] Yara International is the world's largest producer of nitrogen based fertilizers.[7]


The nitrogen-rich compounds found in fertilizer run-off is the primary cause of a serious depletion of oxygen in many parts of the ocean, called eutrophication. This is particularly apparent in coastal zones, where the resulting lack of dissolved oxygen greatly reduces the ability of these areas to sustain oceanic fauna.[8]

Eutrophication can be human-caused or natural. Untreated sewage effluent and agricultural run-off carrying fertilizers are examples of human-caused eutrophication. However, it also occurs naturally in situations where nutrients accumulate (e.g. depositional environments), or where they flow into systems on an ephemeral basis. Eutrophication generally promotes excessive plant growth and decay, favouring simple algae and plankton over other more complicated plants, and causes a severe reduction in water quality. Enhanced growth of aquatic vegetation or phytoplankton and algal blooms disrupts normal functioning of the ecosystem, causing a variety of problems such as a lack of oxygen needed for fish and shellfish to survive. The water becomes cloudy, typically coloured a shade of green, yellow, brown, or red. Eutrophication also decreases the value of rivers, lakes, and estuaries for recreation, fishing, hunting, and aesthetic enjoyment. Health problems can occur where eutrophic conditions interfere with drinking water treatment.

Human activities can accelerate the rate at which nutrients enter ecosystems. Runoff from agriculture and development, pollution from sewage sludge, and other human-related activities increase the flow of both inorganic nutrients and organic substances into ecosystems. Elevated levels of atmospheric compounds of nitrogen can increase nitrogen availability. Phosphorus is often regarded as the main culprit in cases of eutrophication in lakes subjected to "point source" pollution from sewage pipes. The concentration of algae and the trophic state of lakes correspond well to phosphorus levels in water. Studies conducted in the Experimental Lakes Area in Ontario have shown a relationship between the addition of phosphorus and the rate of eutrophication. Humankind has increased the rate of phosphorus cycling on Earth by four times, mainly due to agricultural fertilizer production and application. Between 1950 and 1995, an estimated 600,000,000 tonnes of phosphorus were applied to Earth's surface, primarily on croplands.[9]

About half of all the lakes in the United States are now eutrophic, while the number of oceanic dead zones near inhabited coastlines are increasing.[10]

Nitrogen oxide

When air is heated, like in coal boilers, nitrogen atoms break apart and join with oxygen, forming nitrogen oxides (NOx) (rhymes with "socks"). NOx can also be formed from the atoms of nitrogen that are trapped inside coal. Coal combustion release oxides of nitrogen, which react with volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight to produce ground-level ozone, the primary ingredient in smog.[11][12]

In atmospheric chemistry and air pollution and related fields, nitrogen oxides refers specifically to NOx (NO and NO2).[13]

Nitrogen dioxide

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) belongs to a family of highly reactive gases called nitrogen oxides (NOx). These gases form when fuel is burned at high temperatures, and come principally from motor vehicle exhaust and power plants. Described by the EPA as "a suffocating, brownish gas," nitrogen dioxide is a strong oxidizing agent that reacts in the air to form corrosive nitric acid, as well as toxic organic nitrates. It also plays a major role in the atmospheric reactions that produce ground-level ozone (or smog).[14]



  1. "Nitrogen" Los Alamos Periodic table, accessed Feb. 2011.
  2. "Frequently Asked Questions about No Sure Fix" UCS, accessed Feb. 2011.
  3. Acta Horticulturae. Retrieved on 2010-08-25.
  4. AZ Master Gardener Manual: Organic Fetilizers. Retrieved on 2010-08-25.
  5. Glass, Anthony (September 2003). "Nitrogen Use Efficiency of Crop Plants: Physiological Constraints upon Nitrogen Absorption". Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 22 (5). doi:10.1080/713989757. 
  6. Vance; Uhde-Stone & Allan (2003). "Phosphorus acquisition and use: critical adaptations by plants for securing a non renewable resource.". New Phythologist 157 (3): 423–447. Blackwell Publishing. doi:10.1046/j.1469-8137.2003.00695.x. 
  7. "Mergers in the fertiliser industry", The Economist (18 February 2010). Retrieved on 21 February 2010. 
  8. "Rapid Growth Found in Oxygen-Starved Ocean ‘Dead Zones’", NY Times, Aug. 14, 2008
  9. Carpenter, S.R., N.F. Caraco, and V.H. Smith. 1998. Nonpoint pollution of surface waters with phosphorus and nitrogen. Ecological Applications 8:559-568.
  10. John Heilprin, Associated Press. Discovery Channel :: News - Animals :: U.N.: Ocean 'Dead Zones' Growing. Retrieved on 2010-08-25.
  11. "Knocking the NOx Out of Coal" DOE, accessed September 2010.
  12. "Coal Power: Air Pollution," Union of Concerned Scientists, accessed September 2010
  13. United States Clean Air Act
  14. "Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)" EPA, accessed October 2010.

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