Food crisis lifeline: UK firm to help slash Russia fertiliser reliance – and they’re green

Carbon capture tech in farming could lower carbon emissions

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According to recent analysis by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, British farmers faced £160million in additional fertiliser expenses last year alone. Soaring costs stemmed from the volatility of gas prices, as methane is a key ingredient in the production process of most of the world’s primary chemical and mineral fertilisers. However, such has been exacerbated recently by Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. In response to Western sanctions over the invasion, Russia — who, along with its ally Belarus, is among the world’s leading producers of fertiliser — has moved to suspend exports, driving prices up further and threatening food security. Given that the UK imported 22,000 tonnes of Russian fertiliser in 2020 alone, the nation’s self-reliance would benefit from alternate, domestic sources of the vital agricultural material.

Founded in 2011, CCm Technologies is the Swindon-based brainchild of finance expert Pawel Kisielewski and chemical engineer Professor Peter Hammond.

During his work in the application of carbon dioxide as a solvent, Prof Hammond found that carbon dioxide, in the presence of ammonia, can be attached to fibrous matter such as might be derived from grass, straw or wood chips.

The reaction is then fixed using a second one involving calcium salts.

This can create a very effective fertiliser, as the combination of the calcium carbonate and the organic matter helps retain the ammonia part of the fertiliser close to the roots of the plants, enabling a 30–60 percent better retention of moisture and nutrients.

In conventional fertiliser, for comparison, only 50 percent actually ends up in the plant’s root matrix — with the rest lost as nitrogen oxide emissions or via run-off into groundwater.

Nitrogen oxides contribute to the formation of the greenhouse gas ozone, adding to climate change effects, while sufficient quantities of ammonia in rivers can lead to harmful algal blooms that can suffocate or even poison other aquatic life.

The key selling point of CCm’s fertiliser, however, is that some 90 percent of its ingredients can be sourced from what might otherwise be classified as waste products.

The ammonia can be recovered from food or animal waste — such as can be collected from water treatment plants — while the carbon is captured from industrial exhaust streams.

The resulting product can therefore match or even outperform conventional fertilisers at a comparable price, while cutting it’s net carbon footprint by 90 percent or more, depending on the particular custom fertiliser formulation being produced.

(The low-carbon product, Mr Kisielewski explained, can be tweaked to suit the farmer’s particular needs, depending on the type of soil they’re growing in and whether they are cultivating corn, rape, potatoes, etc.)

This could make a significant contribution towards reducing the UK’s carbon emissions and reaching the goal of net-zero, with agriculture estimated to be responsible for 10 percent of all of our greenhouse gas emissions.

Mr Kisielewski says that he foresees a future where net-zero products are highlighted and sold in their own sections in the supermarket.

He told Express.co.uk: “Imagine the situation: you’ve got to do the traditional carrots, the organic carrots, and the net zero carrots — and that’s a realistic outcome.”

One of CCm’s most promising partnerships so far has come with PepsiCo which owns, among others, the British crisps manufacturer Walkers.

Potato peelings from the Walkers factory in Leicester are being used to provide the fibrous ingredient for CCm’s fertiliser — which is then spread onto the fields of the firm’s potato farms across the UK.

According to PepsiCo, with a full-scale rollout, the use of the low-carbon fertiliser is expected to be able to reduce their potato-related carbon emissions by some 70 percent.

PepsiCo senior director David Wilkinson said: “This innovation with CCm Technologies could provide learnings for the whole of the food system, enabling the agriculture sector to play its part in combating climate change.

“This is just the beginning of an ambitious journey, we’re incredibly excited to trial the fertiliser on a bigger scale and discover its full potential.”

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Originally, Mr Kisielewski explained, the company had originally been working towards using their recycled carbon and ammonia materials to replace the functional fillers used in plastics.

For just one example, he said, this approach would have allowed carbon dioxide to be used to create the plastic tubing that houses fibre optic data cables underground, effectively sequestering the greenhouse gases underground for 20–30 years.

The researchers decided to park this idea when they realised that the same material might be even more effective as the base for a new kind of fertiliser.

However, Mr Kisielewski noted, the plastics concept is likely only around 18 months off of being commercially viable, and the firm hopes to return to the idea in the future once the fertiliser side is fully developed.

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