Fertilizer Innovations 101

The U.S. agricultural productivity boom in the mid-20th century resulted from innovative fertilizer technologies. Novel technologies like synthetic fertilizers helped revolutionize fuel, food, fiber and feed production. Synthetic fertilizers are also directly linked to U.S. economic growth and prosperity and reduced reliance on other countries. Today, the U.S. continues to lead the world in finding new ways to enhance agricultural productivity and efficiency while producing clean and reliable ammonia for fertilizer production and reducing agricultural sector emissions. 

Fertilizer provides essential plant nutrients to maximize productivity

Agricultural resources like crops and other feedstocks grow and produce food, fuel, fiber and feed through photosynthesis, which uses water, sunlight and CO2 from the atmosphere. Nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are needed to ensure the health and productivity of these resources to optimize growth and yields, similar to how people need a diverse, nutritious diet to stay healthy and grow. These essential nutrients can be found naturally in agricultural fields in varying amounts, depending on the location. However, for certain crops, fertilizers can optimize these conditions. For example, long-term research in Iowa showed that corn yields averaged 60 bushels per acre without fertilizer, and corn fertilized with nitrogen easily yields 200 bushels per acre. Fertilizers for crops are like food for humans, supplying essential nutrients to plants. Fertilizer can be stored, transported and applied in various forms (i.e., liquid, solid). The type of fertilizer used depends on the plant being grown and environmental conditions, similar to how the food intake for a marathon runner will differ from that of a weightlifter.

Figure 1. Fertilizers for Crops Is Like Food for Humans

The Haber-Bosch process, invented in 1913, is a crucial scientific discovery, and the technological innovations that came from it revolutionized the world. The Haber-Bosch process is the main industrial method of producing ammonia. The most prominent innovation from the process is the creation of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. This spurred the rapid growth in crop productivity beginning in the mid-1900s and supported the growing global population. Long-term field studies across the U.S. dating back before the development and use of synthetic fertilizers have shown the positive impact of fertilizer use on crop yield. A review of crop production across 362 crop growing seasons showed that synthetic fertilizers are responsible for at least 30-50 percent of crop yields. Location-specific research done on the Magruder Plots in Oklahoma, the oldest continuous soil fertility research plots in the Great Plains region of the U.S., found that, on average, over 71 years, nitrogen and phosphorus fertilization was responsible for 40% of wheat yield in America (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Wheat yield attributable to nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer in the Oklahoma State University Magruder plots (1930-2000)

Source: Better Crops

U.S. leadership in fertilizer innovation is needed now

Food security is national security. The U.S. food system is heavily reliant on fertilizer production from adversaries like Russia and China, which could limit fertilizer supply to the U.S. and reduce America’s ability to provide affordable food and fuel domestically and globally. For example, the Russia-Ukraine conflict resulted in fertilizer trade restrictions across the globe, driving up fertilizer prices and increasing grain prices. Therefore, U.S. leadership in fertilizer production is essential to reduce American dependence on international fertilizer production and to ensure American farmers have access to affordable and reliable fertilizer to fuel and feed the nation. 

As the U.S. leads in fertilizer innovation through initiatives like USDA’s Fertilizer Product Expansion Program (FPEP) that aims to expand the manufacturing and processing of fertilizer in the U.S., American ingenuity is also beginning to address the emissions impact of fertilizers, as the production and use of fertilizer accounts for approximately 5% of global emissions. Recent studies on the full life-cycle of fertilizers found that emissions could be reduced by 80% by 2050 without impacting productivity. Fertilizer production accounts for around one-third of synthetic fertilizer emissions, while the remaining two-thirds derive from fertilizer use. As a result, if we want to reduce emissions, we must find a way to both decarbonize fertilizer production and develop technologies and practices to reduce emissions from nitrogen fertilizer. Technological innovation will be key to ensuring that we do so in a manner that does not increase costs or decrease yields. 

Clean ammonia can reduce fertilizer production emissions

Ammonia production is a major global industry that accounts for 2% of total energy consumption and 1.3% of CO2 emissions. It is produced by combining nitrogen from the air and hydrogen through the Haber-Bosch process. Approximately 70 percent of ammonia produced is used for agricultural fertilizers. The U.S. has cleaner ammonia production compared to its international counterparts, with American ammonia being approximately 24% less carbon intensive than the global average. The U.S. is also twice as efficient at producing ammonia as China, the largest producer and consumer of chemicals. 
As the global population increases and becomes more affluent, demand for fertilizer will increase, resulting in the need for more ammonia. The U.S. is primed to lead in clean ammonia production as demand rises. To maintain America’s competitive advantage, the U.S. needs to support the research and development (R&D) of innovations that reduce emissions during ammonia production, such as electrolysis, methane pyrolysis and carbon capture and storage. Supporting R&D efforts can make American ammonia more affordable, reliable and cleaner and encourage the deployment and commercialization of viable technologies to reach net-zero goals by 2050.

Innovations to reduce agricultural nitrous oxide emissions

Nitrous oxide, like carbon dioxide, is a gas in the atmosphere that accounts for around 6 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Nitrous oxide is also 300 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. In agriculture, more than 70 percent of nitrous oxide comes from agricultural soil management. Nitrous oxide emissions result from natural microbial processes in the soil that convert nitrogen, an important nutrient for plants, to nitrous oxide. Multiple factors such as the amount of nitrogen in the soil, type and amount of fertilizer used, crop type and soil conditions (including type, pH, temperature and moisture level) can impact the amount of nitrous oxide emitted. As such, innovations to reduce nitrous oxide will differ based on location, crop type and nutrient management practices. Implementation of the 4R principles (right source, right rate, right time and right place) through the 4R Nutrient Stewardship Framework, developed by the fertilizer industry worldwide, is one way the agriculture sector is working to reduce emissions. Examples of innovations include enhanced efficiency fertilizers that control fertilizer release or prevent the biological process of nitrous oxide emissions, breeding and engineering crops with greater nitrogen use efficiencies and biostimulants (i.e., microbial fertilizers) that support plant growth and nutrient uptake.

U.S. agriculture is highly productive due to the historical adoption of innovations like enhanced seeds. Continued R&D that correlates reductions in nitrous oxide emissions with cutting-edge technologies could encourage more innovation deployment and more affordable implementation. 

Policy Opportunities 

Support for and utilization of policy levers can enhance fertilizer innovation in the U.S., further improving agricultural productivity and efficiency while reducing emissions from the agricultural sector. 

  1. Clean Ammonia Research, Development and Deployment — Support research and development of low-carbon ammonia production technologies to improve fertilizer affordability and reduce emissions. Encourage deploying viable technologies. 
  2. Nitrous Oxide Research and Development — Increase investments in research and development of innovations that reduce agricultural nitrous oxide emissions, such as through the support of targeted research programs like the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AGARDA), more long-term, on-farm research trials and improvements to nitrous oxide measurements. 
  3. Fertilizer Innovation Demonstration and Deployment — Explore pathways to encourage deploying cutting-edge innovations for reducing nitrous oxide emissions, including through programs like the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Conservation Innovation Grants. 

Coordination between Relevant Federal Agencies — Enhance the coordination and collaboration among existing and future agriculture innovation research, such as between the USDA, DOE, NASA and NSF, to leverage resources across the federal government and streamline the innovation pipeline from research to deployment.

Private Industry Bets on Nuclear Energy

Most people think about energy in terms of their own use at home: for heating, lighting, cooking, and more. But, in the United States, residential consumption only represents 16% of total energy use. Commercial and industrial activities use three times as much energy. Power-hungry activities like data center operations and high-tech manufacturing underpin modern technology and must be able to run reliably without interruption. Constant operation means a 24/7 power supply is critical. Industrial processes like steel manufacturing and chemical production, which build cities and help grow food, need large amounts of process heat that is difficult to electrify. Energy is used all around us for more than just keeping our lights on. 

Private corporations across various industries aim to achieve this with an even smaller carbon footprint. In the tech sector, companies like Microsoft pledged to be carbon-negative, and Google aims to operate using 24/7 carbon-free power by 2030. Nucor, the largest U.S. steel producer, pledged net-zero production goals by 2050 to provide a fully clean steel product. Building upon these commitments, in March 2024, these companies announced that they are partnering to develop a business model that will allow them to procure clean electricity from new technologies such as new nuclear. 

While companies seek reliable and clean energy, utilities are struggling to keep up with exploding demand growth. These pressures drive a new trend —  private industry interest in new nuclear energy deployments to power data centers and steel manufacturing.

Figure 1: U.S. Data Center Development Pipeline

Source: 2023 U.S. Data Center Market Overview & Market Clusters by Newmark

Sending an email, searching the web or reading this blog requires connecting to a massive cyberinfrastructure, requiring constant power to operate seamlessly. These energy-hungry data centers contain servers that power cloud computing, data storage and novel AI technologies. A single server rack can use as much power as five U.S. homes, and “hyperscale” data centers house thousands of these servers. Data processing is a significant market for the United States: Loudoun County, Virginia, has more data center capacity than all of China. In 2023, data centers represented 2.5% of total U.S. electrical consumption. Today, grid planners expect the demand for energy in data centers to increase 2.5 times, a stat that has grown quickly since the introduction of AI.

Data giants like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are looking for new, clean, firm power sources, such as nuclear energy, to meet rising demand from data centers. In June 2023, Microsoft partnered with Constellation Energy to provide 35% of the power for a data center in Boydton, Virginia and invested in fusion startup Helion, intending to provide power by 2028. Similarly, Google has invested in fusion research company TAE since 2014, developing research reactors to power its data infrastructure. Amazon acquired a data center park adjacent to the Susquehanna Nuclear Power Plant. 

The interest in powering with nuclear isn’t limited just to newer tech companies. More traditional manufacturing companies see promise in nuclear reactors to provide reliable energy and heat for industrial operations in a way other clean technologies do not. Nuclear, like gas or coal, produces electricity by generating heat to boil water. Industrial processes can also use this high-temperature heat, which doesn’t work with non-thermal sources like hydro, wind, or solar.

Figure 2 Nuclear Process Heat for Industrial Applications

Existing and advanced technologies can produce heat at temperatures appropriate for various industrial activities

Source: World Nuclear Association 2021

Other traditional industrial manufacturers like Dow promised to reduce carbon emissions by 15% by 2030 and reach carbon-neutral by 2050. Dow and X-Energy, through the ARDP program, plan to build four small modular reactors (SMRs) by 2030 to provide high-temperature process heat and electricity to their Seadrift production site. The proof of concept supported by Dow's investment will provide reliable energy while reducing carbon emissions by 440,000 MT CO2e/year

Steel production alone represents 8% of energy end-use demand and 7% of total energy emissions. Nucor has turned to nuclear power to augment its production methods. In a series of investments, Nucor contributed $15 million to bolster the NuScale SMR in 2022 and $35 million to Helion in 2023 to deploy a fusion reactor. 

Companies with significant off-grid power needs, such as upstream oil and gas development, are exploring the potential of microreactors. These reactors are small compared to traditional reactors or even small modular reactors (SMRs), but could provide relatively large quantities of reliable power, competitive in off-grid applications. Several microreactor companies are currently working to deploy reactors for these purposes.  

Nuclear energy can be a key player in driving rapid growth and decarbonization in the industrial and commercial sectors. Traditional reactors can already provide large quantities of reliable, clean electricity, while several advanced reactors can provide high-temperature process heat or act as mobile generators for off-grid use. 

The bottom line is private companies across various sectors recognize the importance of 24/7 clean energy, and the potential role nuclear can play in decarbonizing the industrial and commercial sectors while meeting the challenge of rapid load growth. Traditionally, nuclear energy deployment has been top-down and utility-led, but today, power-hungry private industries may serve as the demand driver for new nuclear power. Targeted federal support will allow these private investments to flourish, ensuring America's competitiveness in the global marketplace.

Modernizing the U.S. Department of Energy for Today’s Energy Challenges

The United States is in the midst of an energy revolution. Demand for new energy will reach all-time highs, breakthrough technologies are beginning to commercialize, and existing technologies are innovating new, cleaner ways to produce more energy. It’s all very exciting.  

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) can play an important role in meeting this challenge, but it must focus on America’s global energy leadership, advancing innovative technologies, protecting national security interests, and supporting fundamental research and science. 

DOE has experienced incremental changes since its inception 50 years ago in attempts to respond to the rapidly changing energy landscape, but those tweaks aren’t fully meeting America’s challenges of today.  

ClearPath has published a new report offering holistic policy recommendations and proposed a new organizational structure to best promote energy innovation in a new administration. 

In recent years, Congress has expanded the Department's energy innovation mission, providing unprecedented funding increases to commercialize new technologies through demonstration programs. These new authorities stem from bipartisan legislation, including the Energy Act of 2020, the CHIPS and Science Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). If implemented effectively, these programs could reduce emissions, lower energy costs to consumers, boost domestic manufacturing and allow the U.S. to retain its position as a global energy leader.

DOE Annual Funding in $ Billions - Regular Appropriations Process

Today, the United States faces different conditions characterized by the energy crisis of the 1970s that spurred the Department’s creation, yet the legacy structure of the Department largely persists. In recent years, the U.S. has transformed from an import-dependent country to a net energy exporter since 2019. Most notably, this era of American energy dominance has been marked by the United States becoming the world’s largest oil and gas producer. 

But how can we best promote American technology at home and abroad, advance energy innovation and thwart the influence of foreign adversaries over energy and mineral supply chains?

These challenges demand rethinking. 

The current approach at DOE incentivizes political appointees and career officials alike to advocate for specific technologies rather than promoting an integrated, practical application of technology innovation in the energy sector. 
ClearPath’s proposed structure will empower the next Secretary of Energy with the necessary tools to lead strategically from day one.

Proposed Direct Reports to the Under Secretary for Energy & Innovation (simplified)

Notably, the reforms proposed in this report will maximize impact without requiring new authorizing legislation or amending the Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977.

DOE must remain focused on accelerating innovative technologies from basic research in the lab to commercial deployment.

ClearPath believes that for the U.S. to maintain its global energy leadership, DOE must better align with industry to advance its technology demonstration mission and protect the U.S.intellectual property from foreign adversaries.

Read the full report and recommendations here.

Paving the Way to Innovation: Moving from Prescriptive to Performance Specifications to Unlock Low-Carbon Cement, Concrete and Asphalt Innovations

Emrgy: Reimagining Hydropower Technologies

Emrgy is expanding America’s hydropower portfolio with an exciting new twist on reliable, affordable, modular hydropower. The company has innovated hydropower to reduce new builds’ capital and regulatory challenges by making its turbines smaller and more modular.

Rich Powell’s TED Talk: How to Modernize Energy Permitting

Rich Powell, ClearPath CEO, recently delivered a TED Talk on modernizing the energy permitting process. Rich shines his quintessential optimism on the otherwise gloomy permitting outlook, and outlines a plan for Congress to expedite project development and improve the burdensome judicial review process. There is no doubt the permitting system is slowing down America’s path to building more clean energy, and there’s no single national straightforward solution for our current permitting emergency, but it starts with all of us.

Watch Rich Powell’s TED Talk below:

Here’s The Biggest Development That Emerged From COP28 (The Daily Caller)

This op-ed was originally published by The Daily Caller on December 13, 2023. Click here to read the entire piece.

The strongest development coming from the annual United Nations climate conference this year was the ambitious call to triple nuclear energy capacity by 2050.

The U.S., UK and Canada, along with more than 20 other countries, launched this initiative at the United Nations Climate Change Conference’s (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP28), an annual event that has often shunned or ignored nuclear energy as a climate solution.

To triple nuclear capacity from now until 2050, the world will have to build around 30 large reactors each year, even more, if replacing retiring capacity is necessary or if smaller reactors take off.

This goal is achievable if the U.S. gets its federal policy right. Despite the anti-nuclear crowd’s best efforts in recent decades, the U.S. is still, in fact, the global leader in nuclear technology and, with the right policies, could see a booming U.S. industry with global reach.

To capitalize on this opportunity, policymakers should focus on three things: fixing how we license new nuclear reactors, ensuring we get innovative designs to market and developing a robust domestic fuel supply chain.

Congress has been grappling with how best to modernize permitting and make the 1970s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) work for energy projects of the 2020s, streamlining litigation backlogs and providing pre-clearance for projects regulators know will have no environmental problems. These reforms are needed across the energy spectrum, including nuclear.

American entrepreneurs are also up to the challenge of meeting demand. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) anticipates at least 13 applications for advanced reactors by 2027. The projects in the pipeline today employ thousands of Americans, and these are just the tip of the spear.

Last year, Southern Nuclear loaded fuel in the first Westinghouse AP1000 reactor at the Vogtle site in Waynesboro, Georgia. When all units are operational, the entire Vogtle Plant will be the largest producer of clean energy in the U.S., powering more than one million homes and businesses and employing more than 800 highly paid professionals.

Click here to read the full article

America’s Global Energy and Climate Leadership Needs Carbon Capture (RealClearEnergy)

This op-ed was originally published by RealClearEnergy on December 3, 2023. Click here to read the entire piece.

The world is in the throes of a complex energy landscape as we recognize the unprecedented demand for affordable and reliable energy combined with our shared goal to decrease global carbon dioxide emissions. These twin realities create parallel challenges: producing more, while simultaneously deploying clean energy technologies that will reduce emissions.

The U.S. must lead in meeting both challenges. Domestic natural resources — oil, natural gas, coal and critical minerals – are prolific. Recent global instability has demonstrated just how crucial it is to decrease our dependence on hostile regimes like Russia, China and Iran. As the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas, America’s seat at the table is clear.

Advancing U.S. leadership can’t stop with natural resources, we must also lead in low-carbon technologies. Financial incentives and policy support are accelerating the development of solutions like carbon capture and storage (CCS), which the International Energy Agency has said will be “necessary to meet national, regional and even corporate net-zero goals.”

The U.S. already has a competitive advantage with CCS. A recent report from the Global CCS Institute shows that the U.S. “dominates” the global CCS landscape with the U.S. facility count increasing by 73 in the past year alone. This is no surprise: the technology enjoys vast bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats, environmentalists and industry alike, and is widely thought to be a crucial piece of the puzzle in decreasing emissions.

Click here to read the full article

Agricultural Innovation 101

Re-establishing American Uranium Leadership

American entrepreneurs have been busy designing some incredible next generation nuclear reactors. This is very exciting, but there’s a catch: where is the fuel?

On June 13, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released its annual uranium market report, which provides detailed data and analysis on the international uranium markets. The data exposes a supply chain bottleneck in desperate need of diversification, with Russia and China collectively controlling nearly 60 percent of the global supply of enrichment services needed to fuel the next generation of reactors. Geopolitical tensions exacerbated the need for a new global leader in nuclear fuel exports, and the U.S. would benefit from seizing the opportunity. The U.S. is well positioned to do so, but the existing fuel availability program is underfunded and ill-equipped. Additional appropriations and authorization for a revolving fund would enable the U.S. to supply fuel for the next generation of reactors.

New Nuclear Requires Higher Enrichment

Enrichment is a service, like a carwash or a haircut, that helps get natural uranium ready for the next stage of manufacturing. Enrichment is measured in separative work units (SWU). They measure the amount of energy used as an input relative to the amount of uranium processed and the degree to which it is enriched. Under the nuclear fuel umbrella, there are two main types of enriched uranium: high-assay, low-enriched uranium (HALEU) and low-enriched uranium (LEU). HALEU requires more SWU and different infrastructure than LEU. LEU is like a basic carwash or simple haircut, while HALEU is a carwash plus wax or a haircut with a shave. Both start the same way, but the production of HALEU requires additional resources. A sustainable, domestic supply chain requires robust production of both LEU and HALEU. To get there, new enrichment infrastructure is needed.

America Needs a Lot More Enrichment Capacity to Compete

There is no doubt new nuclear energy is going to play an important role in an American clean energy future. In the U.S., nuclear utilities are calling for 90 GW of new nuclear power by 2050, nearly doubling our nuclear energy capacity in the next 30 years. But the DOE projects the need for 200 GW of new nuclear power by 2050 to meet climate targets. What’s more, the U.S. faces stiff competition from China and Russia, the latter now possessing the highest enrichment capacity in the world. Domestic enrichment capacity is currently limited to Urenco USA and Centrus Energy. Urenco has the capacity to produce 4.6 million SWU, and recently announced it will expand its LEU production capacity to 5.3 million SWU. Centrus, meanwhile, recently announced that it is set to begin production of HALEU in October of 2023. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave the greenlight this month.

Russia supplies about one quarter of the low-enriched uranium powering America’s civilian nuclear reactors and is currently the only source of commercially available HALEU. A rough equivalent of 1 in 20 U.S. households were powered by Russian-enriched nuclear fuel in 2022. As the demand for nuclear energy continues to grow globally, it is imperative that there be a reliable, domestic source of nuclear fuel.

The U.S. once had a large enrichment capacity, but following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1993, an agreement was made involving the purchase of Russian weapons-grade uranium, which was down-blended to lower-enriched reactor fuel. The Megaton to Megawatts program successfully reduced the number of nuclear weapons in Russia, but the U.S. enrichment market never recovered. Between 1985 and 2014, U.S. enrichment capacity fell from 27.3 million to 3.7 million SWU. During the same period, Russia increased its capacity from 3 million to nearly 27 million SWU. As of 2022, Russia held nearly half of the world’s enrichment capacity.

In 2020, the U.S. government reached an agreement with Russia to gradually decrease annual imports of Russian uranium. Still, every year, the U.S. sends more than $1 billion from its utility bills to Rosatom, the Russian-owned uranium enrichment company.

Jump Starting a Domestic HALEU Supply Chain

The catch-22 in the HALEU market is well-understood and difficult to remedy. Advanced reactors cannot be developed and deployed without the reliable availability of HALEU fuel, and fuel manufacturers will not invest in production without advanced reactors to purchase their product. A cyclical chicken-or-the-egg style problem has developed, one that smart policy can help solve.

The Energy Act of 2020 directed the Secretary of Energy to establish and maintain the Advanced Nuclear Fuel (HALEU) Availability Program. In 2022, the tax bill designated $700 million for the HALEU Availability Program; however, only about half of that amount went to activities supporting the creation of new HALEU enrichment infrastructure. Although this commitment provides an important market signal, additional investment is needed to spur private investment. At the DOE’s HALEU industry day on August 8, 2023, industry leaders indicated the current funding for enrichment is insufficient to meet program objectives.

In order to help secure project financing, the DOE will act as a secure off-taker of HALEU until demand from the advanced reactor industry is steady. However, the DOE is not authorized to reinvest the proceeds from HALEU and LEU sales of purchased fuel to reactor owners and operators into future DOE HALEU and LEU purchases. This both increases the cost of the program for the taxpayer and increases the amount of up-front appropriations necessary to make the DOE a secure enough off-taker for a private company to finance the project. Authorizing a revolving fund for the HALEU program would help alleviate these issues and would reduce the program’s total cost by 50-70%.

Global Fuel Cycle: Active Supply Chain Capacity

Source: World Nuclear Association, Nuclear Fuel Cycle

The road to an American clean energy future is long and winding. Nuclear fuel policies need to improve in order to meet global emission targets within the desired timeline. The U.S. nuclear energy industry would benefit from the authorization of a revolving fund for the HALEU availability program and limited imports of Russian uranium. A domestic supply of LEU and HALEU can eliminate our current reliance on Russia, create a valuable revenue stream, and improve the efficiency with which we deploy advanced nuclear technology. Given adequate resources and robust international cooperation, the U.S. can become a reliable global supplier of nuclear fuel.