Credit: Fotokostic/Shutterstock

The world’s population will continue to grow, but the amount of arable land to feed that population will not.

“So people will continue to add more fertilizers to grow more crops in the same areas,” says Jonas Baltrusaitis, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. "You can’t grow crops without fertilizer. It’s just not happening.”

While a boon to harvests, fertilizers exact a toll on the environment. Their production alone is extremely energy intensive and a significant source of greenhouse gases, and when nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus aren’t fully taken up by plants, they can leach into groundwater and wash into waterways. Excess nutrients can cause eutrophication of water bodies where algal blooms deprive the ecosystem of oxygen, killing wildlife and producing toxins that can harm humans.

It’s a vicious cycle that Baltrusaitis, who recently received a four-year, nearly $435,000 grant through the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, hopes to one day break.

The potential impact is global, and the technology is being developed to be easily inserted into existing supply chains.
Jonas Baltrusaitis

His team has developed a dry mechanochemical synthesis method of a family of urea ionic cocrystals that can serve as functional fertilizers that significantly slow down urea hydrolysis in soil, reduce ammonia emissions, and extend availability of nitrogen to plants. He is combining water-soluble urea with various nutrients containing low-solubility minerals or even industrial waste, such as drywall gypsum, to improve nitrogen management efficiency.

“We’re redesigning fertilizer materials to be much more stable in the environment,” he says. “If they don’t decompose as fast, they’re available to the plant for longer, so those nutrients are going into the food chain rather than being wasted and damaging the environment.”

The potential impact is global, and the technology is being developed to be easily inserted into existing supply chains, says Baltrusaitis. His ultimate goal is to design nitrogen-efficient novel fertilizer materials that can be used in field trials with local Pennsylvania farmers, in which his team can test improvements in yields and emissions.