In 2011 a plaque was hung on the wall at Mississippi State University's Delta Research & Extension Center, in Stoneville, MS commemorating the birth of modern anhydrous ammonia fertilizer use.
The plaque reads, “In 1932, J. O. Smith, agricultural engineer at Delta Branch Experiment Station in Stoneville, Miss., attached a small anhydrous ammonia cylinder to a plow in such a manner that the NH3 was released in the soil. The plow, a Georgia Stock, was pulled by a gray mule named Ike. This was the first known use of anhydrous ammonia as a soil-applied crop fertilizer. The crude apparatus and the anhydrous ammonia it applied provided a much-needed source of nitrogen for the otherwise rich alluvial soils of the Mississippi Delta."
The majority of the anhydrous ammonia applied in the U.S. is a product of Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidad and Tobago has enjoyed oil supremacy in the Caribbean, bearing the distinction of the only net exporter of energies in the island chain. But rapid production capacity increases currently threaten the natural gas supplies there, and in the span of 5 years, proven natural gas supplies have dropped by 50%.
Experts now doubt Trinidad and Tobago can maintain current production levels through the end of the decade. In fact, two of the largest natgas refineries shut down in 2012, reducing production capacity by 40%. Diminished sendouts will impact U.S. anhydrous pricing down the road.
Meanwhile, news reports of meetings between Chinese officials and Trinidad exporteers has China eyeing the natural gas supply in the form of LNG and CNG tenders. If Trinidad gets a better deal from China as proven natgas reserves dwindle, anhydrous ammonia is likely to stay at elevated pricing levels.
Year to year, roughly 110 million metric tons of ammonia is produced worldwide and while some goes to DAP production and other industrial uses, here at home, anhydrous ammonia is the lifeblood of crop production. Growers are clear that they would much rather stick with anhydrous than switch to urea, but if too much natgas is diverted from Trinidad ammonia production to Chinese LNG, anhydrous could price itself out of reach for corn growers.
J.O. Smith and his trusty mule Ike were the first to inject anhydrous ammonia as a nitrogen fertilizer way back in 1932 and in the 80 years since, the correct use of anhydrous as fertilizer has allowed for population growth and nutritional improvements that would otherwise not have been possible. Little change has been made to the recipe since Haber improved Bosch's slow drip method for making anhydrous in the laboratory. But demand for natural gas in the form of LNG may eclipse ammonia production in Trinidad and Tobago, threatening the viability of this tried and true N source.
Photo credit: D. Michaelsen, Inputs Montior