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As Living Organisms Take Over the Role of Fertilization, Chemical R&D Needs to Diversify

Posted on May 9th, 2017 by in Chemical R&D

Chemical fertilizer

The days of chemical fertilizers may be numbered. A growing number of labs are actively investigating the use of microbial inoculants – bacteria and fungi that promote plant growth – as  alternatives. Various teams have recently demonstrated that microbial inoculants increase biodiversity throughout the food chain, boost crop yields, and improve the effectiveness of “green roofs” in urban environments.

In addition to these benefits, inoculants could also reduce reliance on artificial nitrogen fixation, significantly limiting pollution from excess nitrogen runoff. Thus, as inoculation techniques become more refined, demand for chemical fertilizers may soon plummet – and chemical R&D departments specializing in fertilizer may soon need to diversify their research and offerings.

Bacterial substitutes

While every plant requires some type of nitrogen fixation in order to grow, many chemical fertilizers have drawn harsh consumer criticism over the past several years. Chemophobia rages, as high-profile court cases keep nitrogen runoff in the public eye. Indeed, recent research hints that high levels of soil nitrate may continue to pollute drinking water for decades.

These realizations have spurred the development of safer solutions for maintaining adequate levels of soil nitrogen. Some of these solutions offer the additional benefit of helping increase biodiversity in areas impacted by large plantings of monoculture crops.

For example, one research team has demonstrated that certain mycorrhizal fungi and soil bacteria strengthen the entire soil food chain when introduced into crop substrates. These microbial inoculants increase biodiversity by boosting growth rates for a variety of organisms – including insects known as springtails (Collembola), which consume rotting plant matter such as dead leaves.

Along similar lines, another team recently showed that the bacterial symbionts of legumes – such as wild soybeans – actively “fix” atmospheric nitrogen, converting it into fertilizer without the threat of runoff. Although nitrogen fixation has always been the basis of crop rotation, discoveries like these could inspire a more widespread and deliberate introduction of nitrogen-fixing bacteria as a substitute for synthetic fertilizers.

Broad implications

Discoveries like these could have significant implications not only for crops, but also for “green roofs” – roofs covered in plants and vegetation – which some cities utilize to increase the energy efficiency of large buildings, and minimize their carbon footprints. Many green roofs suffer from lack of water supply, as well as damage from high winds and UV radiation – all of which can limit both the growth of plants and the biodiversity of soil organisms.

However, researchers have found that microbial inoculants, when used as an alternative to chemical fertilizers, can improve the soil biodiversity of green roofs – increasing the amount of CO2 they can absorb. In light of additional research on bacterial symbionts as atmospheric nitrogen converters, it’s likely that these inoculants could also reduce reliance on synthetic fertilizers in many cities, as well as in more rural crop-growing areas.

While synthetic fertilizers certainly aren’t going to disappear overnight, research projects like these emphasize the importance of preparing for a decrease in demand for fertilizer. As variations of traditional fertilizers become less commercially viable, chemical engineers will need to pivot to other types of products – including, perhaps, nutrients for microbial inoculants.

These rapidly changing market conditions – and the pressure to adapt before competitors do – demand R&D tools centralized on a single platform, providing instant access to the latest reactivity data, synthesis pathways, and even relevant news stories. This information may prove relevant at any iteration of the design or synthesis processes – and can save teams tremendous amount of time otherwise spent searching down “blind alleys” of research.

As engineering and process teams race to keep up with an evolving marketplace, those who utilize the most advanced strategic planning systems will be well positioned to discover, test, fine-tune and manufacture compounds that remain useful, even as synthetic fertilizers continue to lose popularity.


Find out more about Agricultural Chemical R&D in this white paper: ‘Increasing Pressures in Agricultural Chemical R&D Demand New Workflow Solutions’

Learn more about Elsevier’s R&D Solutions for Chemicals.

All opinions shared in this post are the author’s own.

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