The Scientific Importance of Nitrogen

The Nitrogen Cycle

Nitrogen is absolutely essential for plants to grow – it is the building block of DNA, proteins, ATP and other vital macromolecules. While we are able to obtain nitrogen simply by eating food, plants obviously cannot do the same. Plants are able to use light energy to fix carbon from the air into a usable form through the process known as photosynthesis. But, this phenomenon cannot be replicated with nitrogen. 

Nitrogen found in the air exists in the form N2. In other words, the gas exists as two nitrogen atoms linked together by a very sturdy triple bond. Plants cannot use nitrogen directly from the atmosphere; rather it must be ‘fixed’ into a usable form. Fixed forms of nitrogen include ammonium (NH4), ammonia (NH3), and nitrate (NO3). In order to acquire a fixed form of nitrogen, the triple bond mentioned previously must be broken. However, due to the sheer strength of the bond, plants are unable to break it alone and require some help. 

Nitrogen Fixation

  1. Lightning:

When lightning strikes the ground, a tremendous amount of energy is released. This energy can drive a reaction between water and atmospheric nitrogen (N2) to create nitrate, which is a usable form of nitrogen. Through extensive research and trial, xVirity has developed a probe which can replicate this natural occurrence. The end result is a liquid fertilizer solution consisting only of nitrate ions and water, lacking the harsh chemicals that are typically present in commercial fertilizer. 

  1. Bacteria

Bacteria are responsible for a majority of nitrogen fixation. First, nitrogen-fixing bacteria perform an ammonification reaction, transforming atmospheric nitrogen (N2) to ammonium (NH4). After this, nitrifying bacteria nitrify ammonium ultimately creating nitrate (NO3) which is the best form of nitrogen for plants (See Figure 1). Note that this is a multi-step process that relies heavily on the viability and number of nitrogen-fixing and nitrifying bacteria. A lack of either of the two will result in less fixed nitrogen and ultimately less plant growth. 

In our world of 7.5 billion people, lighting and bacteria simply are not enough to fix the amount of nitrogen required to grow crops that feed our ever-expanding population. Nitrogen is considered a limiting nutrient, meaning that it is of the shortest supply compared to all of the other nutrients. Therefore, when more nitrogen is introduced into the soil, a significant impact on plant growth can be observed. This is the very reason nitrogen-based chemical fertilizers were invented in the first place. 

Nitrogen in Fertilizer

The process of creating fertilizer is essentially the synthetic fixing of nitrogen. This reduces the amount of work required by bacteria and lighting to make nitrogen into a usable form for plants. While the development of fertilizer has allowed for the members of our growing society to be fed, it has also wreaked havoc on the environment. 

The most common way to produce fertilizer is known as the Haber process. Using this method, nitrogen and hydrogen are heated in a pressurized vessel with iron to produce ammonium. This is a strictly-chemical method and the end result is an ammonia-based fertilizer such as ammonium nitrate or ammonium sulfate. These fertilizers are solid, and while they are relatively cheap to produce, they are prone to uneven fertilization and becoming runoff. 

Solid fertilizer must first be absorbed by water to work – either by physically watering plants or by rainfall. Bouts of heavy rainfall can easily wash away fertilizer pellets into bodies of water, creating a detrimental cascade of problems. 

Aquatic plants need nitrogen just as much as land-dwelling plants do. With that being said, when fertilizer is introduced into bodies of water, the growth rate of aquatic plants sky-rockets. This causes a rapid cycle of plant growth and death. The accumulation of plants will begin to physically block sunlight from reaching plants living below the ones at the top. This inhibits photosynthesis which in turn results in a very large quantity of dead and decomposing plants. The surplus of dead plants serves as the perfect food source for aerobic bacteria living in the water. Because the bacteria are thriving, they multiply. Because these bacteria are aerobic, they consume large amounts of oxygen. This has the adverse effect of causing the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water to plummet. Now, fish and other aquatic life cannot survive and suffocate due to lack of oxygen. This causes there to be less fish in the ecosystem and less for us to consume. But it does not end there – less fish reduces the demand for fishermen resulting in a destruction of jobs. As you can see, the seemingly tiny impact of using solid fertilizer actually has a very significant effect on the environment, food supply and even economy. 

In many cases today, we have seen algae overgrowth in bodies of water all across the nation due to excess nitrogen from fertilizer. You have probably heard the term “algae bloom” before – this is precisely the same phenomena which was just described. Algae blooms span miles and acts as an umbrella, blocking sunlight to aquatic life below. Then, the same cascade of problems will occur, impacting our society severely.

But now, the following question arises: “How can enough food be produced for the population without fertilizer?” Fertilizer is a wonderful creation of mankind – it has been the key contributor that has allowed our massive population to be fed. Developing countries that lack access to fertilizer are struck by waves of hunger and poverty. Thus, the problem here is not fertilizer itself, but rather the quantity of fertilizer used. A key advantage of using xVital over traditional fertilizers is its capacity for precision. Plants can only use so much nitrogen, and whatever they cannot use goes to waste and becomes runoff. For this reason, less is definitely better in the case of fertilizer. So, why not just determine the optimal amount of nitrogen required by plants without crossing the threshold of environmental damage? Using our online calculator, the exact amount of xVital fertilizer can be determined for specific crops. Better yet, because xVital is a liquid fertilizer, it can be measured easily and is absorbed almost instantaneously by the soil and up the roots of plants.

Using Nitrate Instead of Ammonium

As mentioned previously, when the Haber process is used to produce chemical fertilizer, ammonium is the source of nitrogen that is created. But, plants do not strictly require ammonium to grow, they can use nitrate as well, which is actually the superior form of fixed nitrogen.

Unlike ammonium, nitrate is non-volatile, meaning that it will not evaporate into the air. For that reason, nitrate fertilizer only must be applied to the top of crops and not incorporated throughout the soil. This facilitates application while also reducing the amount of nitrogen that escapes back into the atmosphere. 

In addition, nitrate is very mobile in soil which allows it to reach roots much easier. In other words, plant roots will absorb xVital like a sponge, making it easier to reap the benefits. Not only does this promote more plant growth with less product, but also less nitrogen will be susceptible to becoming runoff.

Furthermore, nitrate helps increase the uptake of other plant nutrients (K,Ca, Mg). Ammonium competes with these nutrients adversely making it more difficult for plant to take up. For example, if ammonium fertilizer is applied to a crop, that crop may now have enough nitrogen to grow but may become deficient in potassium, calcium and magnesium. To make nitrate use even more favorable, it is proven that nitrate actually limits plant uptake of harmful elements like chlorine. In simpler terms, your plants are getting more of what you want and less of what you don’t!

Lastly, when nitrate is used over ammonium, the amount of work required by the plant is reduced. When ammonium fertilizer is used, it must first undergo a chemical reaction completed by nitrifying bacteria or the plant itself for it to become nitrate (See Figure 1). Because xVital is already in the nitrate form, there is no further conversion required before the plant can use. This reduces the energy expenditure of plants so more energy can be spent growing.

In conclusion, nitrate-based fertilizer is proven to be superior through a multitude of reasons, all of which are rooted in science. 

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