After graduation Joey Dobrée started working as a process engineer for Stamicarbon in 2007, the Licensing and IP Group Center of Maire Tecnimont (MT). At the moment Mr. Dobrée is Licensing Manager - responsible for the acquisition, management and development of Stamicarbon’s technologies worldwide, with a focus on the nitrogen fertiliser chain. Mr. Dobrée has a Bachelor Degree in Chemical Engineering from the Hanze University and a Master Degree in Industrial Engineering and Management from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.
Over the next 35 years the world population is likely to grow to over 9 billion people according to the UN1. This will put immense strain on the earth’s natural resources which are already feeling the impact of climate change. To put this in context: the average human consumes about 2500 calories per day. Multiply this by 365 days and by 9 billion people and you end up with more than 8 quadrillion calories (which is equal to approximately 19 billion kg of rice) that will be needed per year to feed the world’s population. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) claims that the world would have to increase its food production by 70% - that is taking into account that 70% percent of the population will earn a higher income, which will lead to a higher consumption2.
This becomes even more problematic when looking at available arable land. In 2000 the World Bank estimated the agricultural land area to be around 5 billion hectares, however only 1.5 billion hectares were identified as arable land3. Even though the earth has the potential to expand its arable land, the FAO measured that the majority of potential land is not equally spread but clustered in a few countries in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. On top of that, the FAO’s research revealed that a great deal of this land is only suitable for growing certain crops and some other parts of this land are either forested or protected by local governments4. This means that arable land isn’t expanding at the required pace. This calls for the expansion of arable land and/or improving crop yields on existing farmland. The latter is preferred, because this solution produces lower emissions of greenhouse gases and doesn’t involve the disruption of existing ecosystems5. Yield improvement is not just a practical way to increase food production in developed countries, but also in developing countries. According to the FAO 70% of increased cereal production can be allocated to yield improvement techniques and only 15% to the expansion of arable land6.
The National Center for Biotechnology suggests it is thanks to new farming technologies and synthetic fertilizers that farmers have been able to increase crop yields since the 1960’s5. The United Nations (UN) estimated that 40—60% of the world’s food production is due to the use of commercial fertiliser7 and it has been claimed that over 2.4 billion people would have starved to death if it were not for fertilisers8. As the world population increases so does the need for fertiliser.
Urea process flow diagram
Fertilisers provide the essential nutrients that crops need to grow and resist diseases. The primary nutrients needed are Nitrogen (N), Phosphors (P) and Potassium (K). Since its discovery in 1773, urea has been the most important nitrogen-based fertilizer in the world.9 Urea is a white crystalline organic compound that contains approximately 46% nitrogen. The production of urea involves the reaction between synthetic ammonia and CO2, yet the production of urea itself hardly emits CO2 making it more eco-friendly. The ammonia-CO2 reaction forms ammonium carbamate which is dehydrated to produce urea. A prilled or granulated solid is usually the final product. The urea prills or granules are sowed on agricultural land where it reacts with water to release nitrogen. Nitrogen is released at the optimum rate by the decomposing ammonia enabling plants to grow strong. The CO2 is released into the atmosphere where some of it is absorbed by plants to be used for photosynthesis.
Most of the CO2 used to produce urea comes from the CO2 generated during the production of ammonia. The ammonia and urea plants are usually located in close proximity to supply the feedstock for urea production. However, seeing that ammonia production uses natural gas as feedstock, part of the natural gas feedstock can be replaced with CO2 sourced elsewhere.
A substantial part of the CO2 generated in the ammonia process is vented via flue gases to the atmosphere. Carbon Capture and Utilisation (CCU) technology is capable of recovering this CO2 by means of well proven CO2 recovery systems based on amine solution. For example, flue gases contain about 0.5 kg-CO2/kg-ammonia, which can contribute up to 10% of the required CO2 needed for the production of urea and replace natural gas feedstock.
Advanced CCU technology and innovation will become more-and-more interesting in the world of fertiliser production, taking into account that to produce approximately 1 tonne of urea, 0.7 tonnes of CO2 is required, and over 169 million tonnes of urea was produced in 2015. This implies that around 12 million tonnes of CO2, currently produced from natural gas, can potentially be substituted, thereby decreasing the global carbon footprint of urea production. The actual impact may be even more substantial as the global urea market is growing by more than 3% annually. With an average of 1 million tonnes of urea produced per urea plant, this means that around six new urea plants will need to be built each year.
Stamicarbon has been developing and licensing technology for the urea industry since 1947, and has been responsible for innovations such as pool condensation technology and the corrosion-resistant Safurex® material. More than 250 urea plants licensed around the world, or over 50% of installed capacity, have used Stamicarbon technology to add nutrients to crops, replenish arable land and increase crop yields.
8 Wolfe, David W. (2001). Tales from the underground: a natural history of subterranean life. Cambridge, Mass: Perseus Pub.