Fertilizer is a substance added to soil to improve plants' growth and yield. First used by ancient farmers, fertilizer technology developed significantly as the chemical needs of growing plants were discovered. Modern synthetic fertilizers are composed mainly of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium compounds with secondary nutrients added. The use of synthetic fertilizers has significantly improved the quality and quantity of the food available today, although their long-term use is debated by environmentalists.
Like all living organisms, plants are made up of cells. Within these cells occur numerous metabolic chemical reactions that are responsible for growth and reproduction. Since plants do not eat food like animals, they depend on nutrients in the soil to provide the basic chemicals for these metabolic reactions. The supply of these components in soil is limited, however, and as plants are harvested, it dwindles, causing a reduction in the quality and yield of plants.
Fertilizers replace the chemical components that are taken from the soil by growing plants. However, they are also designed to improve the growing potential of soil, and fertilizers can create a better growing environment than natural soil. They can also be tailored to suit the type of crop that is being grown. Typically, fertilizers are composed of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium compounds. They also contain trace elements that improve the growth of plants.
The primary components in fertilizers are nutrients which are vital for plant growth. Plants use nitrogen in the synthesis of proteins, nucleic acids, and hormones. When plants are nitrogen deficient, they are marked by reduced growth and yellowing of leaves. Plants also need phosphorus, a component of nucleic acids, phospholipids, and several proteins. It is also necessary to provide the energy to drive metabolic chemical reactions. Without enough phosphorus, plant growth is reduced. Potassium is another major substance that plants get from the soil. It is used in protein synthesis and other key plant processes. Yellowing, spots of dead tissue, and weak stems and roots are all indicative of plants that lack enough potassium.
Calcium, magnesium, and sulfur are also important materials in plant growth. They are only included in fertilizers in small amounts, however, since most soils naturally contain enough of these components. Other materials are needed in relatively small amounts for plant growth. These micronutrients include iron, chlorine, copper, manganese, zinc, molybdenum, and boron, which primarily function as cofactors in enzymatic reactions. While they may be present in small amounts, these compounds are no less important to growth, and without them plants can die.
Many different substances are used to provide the essential nutrients needed for an effective fertilizer. These compounds can be mined or isolated from naturally occurring sources. Examples include sodium nitrate, seaweed, bones, guano, potash, and phosphate rock. Compounds can also be chemically synthesized from basic raw materials. These would include such things as ammonia, urea, nitric acid, and ammonium phosphate. Since these compounds exist in a number of physical states, fertilizers can be sold as solids, liquids, or slurries.
The process of adding substances to soil to improve its growing capacity was developed in the early days of agriculture. Ancient farmers knew that the first yields on a plot of land were much better than those of subsequent years. This caused them to move to new, uncultivated areas, which again showed the same pattern of reduced yields over time. Eventually it was discovered that plant growth on a plot of land could be improved by spreading animal manure throughout the soil.
Over time, fertilizer technology became more refined. New substances that improved the growth of plants were discovered. The Egyptians are known to have added ashes from burned weeds to soil. Ancient Greek and Roman writings indicate that various animal excrements were used, depending on the type of soil or plant grown. It was also known by this time that growing leguminous plants on plots prior to growing wheat was beneficial. Other types of materials added include sea-shells, clay, vegetable waste, waste from different manufacturing processes, and other assorted trash.
Organized research into fertilizer technology began in the early seventeenth century. Early scientists such as Francis Bacon and Johann Glauber describe the beneficial effects of the addition of saltpeter to soil. Glauber developed the first complete mineral fertilizer, which was a mixture of saltpeter, lime, phosphoric acid, nitrogen, and potash. As scientific chemical theories developed, the chemical needs of plants were discovered, which led to improved fertilizer compositions. Organic chemist Justus von Liebig demonstrated that plants need mineral elements such as nitrogen and phosphorous in order to grow. The chemical fertilizer industry could be said to have its beginnings with a patent issued to Sir John Lawes, which outlined a method for producing a form of phosphate that was an effective fertilizer. The synthetic fertilizer industry experienced significant growth after the First World War, when facilities that had produced ammonia and synthetic nitrates for explosives were converted to the production of nitrogen-based fertilizers.
The fertilizers outlined here are compound fertilizers composed of primary fertilizers and secondary nutrients. These represent only one type of fertilizer, and other single nutrient types are also made. The raw materials, in solid form, can be supplied to fertilizer manufacturers in bulk quantities of thousands of tons, drum quantities, or in metal drums and bag containers.