Synthetic fertilizer has become an increasingly villified product as the organic food movement grows, but one company is trying to change its image. San Francisco, California-based SynGest is using corncobs–farmer food waste–to manufacture anhydrous ammonia fuel and fertilizer.
Most nitrogen fertilizer is currently imported because of rising natural gas prices in the U.S and low prices abroad. That’s because natural gas–a fuel that helps produce ammonia, one of the basic components of nitrogen fertilizer– makes up 90% of the cost of producing the fertilizer. But SynGest’s process bypasses the need for imported natural gas. The company’s HarvestGas system converts corn cob biomass into hydrogen and carbon monoxide. The hydrogen is purified and reacts with nitrogen to make ammonia.
SynGest has already signed on to buy 75 acres of land Menlo, Iowa. The corn-filled area will be a boon to SynGest–the company plans to use 150,000 tons of locally-produced corn cobs annually to produce 50,000 tons of bio-ammonia. That’s enough to fertilize 500,000 acres of Iowa farmland.
In an ideal world, we would all use permaculture or biodynamic methods of farming. But until we revert as a society to a more natural way of growing our food, ammonia-based fertilizers remain a reality. As Jack Oswald, chief executive of Syngest, says, “You can’t just hitch a meal the way you hitch a ride.”