Category Archives: ammonia

Mammoths & Mankind

Mammoth Distribution

Mammoth Distribution


Climatic suitability for the woolly mammoths in the Late Pleistocene and Holocene. Increasing intensities of red represent increasing suitability of the climate and increasing intensities of green represent decreasing suitability. Black points are the records of mammoth presence for each of the periods. Black lines represent the northern limit of modern humans and black dotted lines indicate uncertainty in the limit of modern humans


This was lifted from the Mammoth Steppe Wikipedia article. This is an example of a dramatic historical environmental change. What might happen in the future?

This is the world today, what I think the world might look like in 3000 AD when the Greenland ice sheet has almost entirely drained, and a population distribution map.

Earth Today

Earth Today

Earth With 7m Sea Rise

Earth With 7m Sea Rise

Earth Population Distribution

Earth Population Distribution

The pink areas have more than 500 people per square kilometer and purple spaces have between 100 and 500 people per square kilometer. More details can be found here.

That’s a bit hard to parse, but what will happen is the loss of Bangladesh (1100 people/sq km), the Mekong delta, the Indus delta, Shanghai, Singapore, everywhere that we live in large numbers. Americans might have an easier time with this map.

California 3000 AD

California 3000 AD


Yesterday in What HAVE We Done I speculated that we’ve caused a serious, unappreciated global geochemical change by mass production of synthetic ammonia. The sea level information I just presented isn’t an IF, it’s a HOW SOON. The mammoths lost their historic range over less than 40,000 years and they perished 4,000 years ago.

Things are going to change much more quickly for us. This planet has ‘breathed’ carbon dioxide between 180ppm and 280ppm in 100,000 year cycles for the entire Quarternary. We’ve moved the needle 100ppm in  just ten generations. This lunge outside the norms under which our species evolved will have dramatic consequences. A feature of the Anthropocene age will be dramatically fewer humans. Perhaps we’re going to end up like Homo Floresiensis, and I wonder who our successors will be, if hominids survive our namesake geological age at all.


What HAVE We Done?

Land Hemisphere

Land Hemisphere

Ocean Hemisphere

Ocean Hemisphere

The Earth can be divided into Land and Water Hemispheres.  Six times in the past the Earth has had episodes of glaciation. The Pongola, Huronian, Cryogenian, Andean-Saharan, Karoo and our current Quarternary ice age. An ice age – an era in which the poles have permanent ice caps – is not the same as a glaciation, in which ice caps spread into lower latitudes.



The Quarternary ice age began 2.58 million years ago and it can be argued that it triggered the rise of our species, starting with Homo Erectus about two million years ago. The three part Becoming Human series is an excellent exploration of that process.



But there is a deeper story here … and one which I fear we have entirely missed. Look back at the timeline. The Oxygen Crisis is mentioned, one of five historical great extinction events. One of the others involved the Cretaceous Chixulub impact and another the Siberian Traps. The most mysterious is the Late Devonian – no asteroid, no continental sized lava flows … things just changed. One of the theories is that ocean chemistry changed due to the spread of vascular plants, which were better able to access soil nutrients. Massive changes due to plants aren’t unprecedented – the Carboniferous period resulted in massive coal beds, sixty million years worth before bacteria evolved to attack lignin.

So what are humans doing to the Earth? We know thanks to Antarctic ice cores that during the Quarternary has been breathing carbon dioxide  in hundred thousand year cycles concurrent with the Earth’s orbital eccentricity. Our species evolved with 180ppm carbon dioxide minimums and 280 ppm maximums. Today we’re at 400ppm. We have no idea what is going to happen, but we’ve certainly interdicted the Quarternary ice age – continental glaciers will be gone in a century, Greenland is a millennia, and the Antarctic will inevitably follow.

The coasts where we all live will become uninhabitable. They’re going to drown. The tropics will be uninhabitable, they’re going to simply be too hot for our species. Our current bread baskets – U.S./Canadian, Russia, and Australian wheat country are already showing periodic failure. There are too many of us on this little rock and Mother Nature is going to take care of that problem directly.


The thing that we may have missed is something I brushed against in Dead Gods Of Atacama, now eight years in the past. Briefly, this world supports just a billion of us, unless we have access to fossil nitrogen, or we make nitrates from fossil fuels.

There has never been such as an efficient process for turning diatomic nitrogen into biologically available nitrogen as what we have done for the last century.

We make about 140 million tons of ammonia a year, the vast majority of which goes into fertilizer. The other sources of nitrogen fixation are lightning, which leads to five to twenty pounds per acre being deposited on Midwest farmlands, and nitrogen fixing bacteria that form relationships with some species of plants.  Dividing 140 million tons by 20 pounds per acre means we’re producing the equivalent of what would accumulate on 14 billion acres, or 21.9 million square miles. Earth’s total land area is 57.5 million square miles.

Those numbers are only enough to provide the sense that there is likely a problem. This biologically available nitrate addiction is something we can step back from a bit – by becoming much more vegetarian as a species – but production will remain at a similar scope to what we are doing now as long as there isn’t a major population correction.


We already screwed up in terms of carbon dioxide and we’re running another massive experiment with nitrogen fixing that I’ve never seen discussed anywhere. Modern humans went through a genetic bottleneck due to the Toba eruption. So did Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Homo Floresiensis. Maybe in a thousand years the only humans left will be Denisovan influenced Tibetans living in a high, dry Himalayan plateau. Or maybe we’ll find our equivalent of what Wrangel island was to the mammoths, a redoubt somewhere in the Arctic circle where we make our final stand.



Methamphetamines Funding The Syrian Insurgency

Six months ago in Funding The Syrian Insurgency I noted the conflict in northeast Syria regarding control of the oil fields. Those wishing to understand the importance of the connection between insurgency and the illicit networks that fund them should look at Paul Collier & Anke Hoeffler’s Greed & Grievance in Civil Wars (pdf).

Today I noticed Insight: War turns Syria into major amphetamines producer, consumer, which reveals an interesting set of interlocking issues. The trade itself is apparently producing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, providing income for both the government and rebel forces, as well as fueling the duration and intensity of street battles.

I have more digging to do before I can make any sort of sensible characterization of what is happening. This post is going to be an inventory of what I believe to be relevant, and it will likely be rather disjoint.

Five months ago I wrote Yemen’s Food & Water Crisis. Residents of the Horn of Africa and the Saudi Peninsula use khat, a mild stimulant that is consumed by chewing the fresh green leaves of the plant. Khat is a thirsty but profitable crop, being grown at the expense of food production in Yemen.

Khat’s active ingredient, cathionone, breaks down within about 48 hours after harvest, so the leaves must be chewed when fresh. The methylated form of this naturally occurring compound has similar effects to methamphetamine and it is a small but dangerous component of the overall stimulant abuse problem in the rural U.S. The Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula have a cultural norm of consuming a stimulant somewhat stronger than coffee, an entry point for more dangerous substances, such as methamphetamine dressed up to look like the milder Captagon, or phenethylline, a popular drug in the region.

Bulk methamphetamine production requires the availability of ammonia, the world’s most common industrial chemical. We make around 140 million tons a year globally, 30% with hydrogen from natural gas, mostly in the west, and 70% using hydrogen from coal. This is a value added product produced using stranded gas pools, notably in Trinidad in this hemisphere, formerly in Punta Arenas, and U.S. ammonia plants have been shut down, packed up, and reassembled in natural gas rich Qatar. Ammonia is easier to transport than compressed or liquified natural gas.

Syria has two large nitrogen production facilities located at the same geographic location, near Homs. Although the link providing the coordinates is about sulphuric acid production, other sources indicate this is also an ammonia production facility. Ammonia is a precursor for ammonium sulfate and a plant that first extracted sulfur from petroleum coke, then gasified it to make hydrogen would be a normal setup near an oil refinery. The nearby water source is also consistent – ammonia plants produce large volumes of low grade heat that is discarded via water fed cooling towers.

General Fertilizer Company Plant, Homs, Syria

General Fertilizer Company Plant, Homs, Syria

General Fertilizer Company, Homs, Syria

General Fertilizer Company, Homs, Syria

The United States banned ammonium nitrate sales after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. This chemical is still our most common fertilizer, but it’s delivered as a solution known as UAN, urea/ammonium nitrate, which is not usable as a component of explosives. The other delivery methods are as anhydrous ammonia, a cryogenic liquid and as urea alone, a water activated solid. Lesser amounts of ammonium phosphate and ammonium sulfate are used when soils need these elements as well as nitrogen.

The link between ammonium nitrate, agriculture, and insurgency produced explosives is a fairly intractable problem. Smallholders in developing countries don’t have the infrastructure to handle liquid UAN, let alone a cryogenic gas. They need nitrogen fertilizer in a bagged form. Urea is a solid, but it has to be applied just before or during rain in order for it to work. This doesn’t work in relatively arid places, so ammonium nitrate is still the solid fertilizer of choice. Producers have attempted to address this issue by making calcium ammonium nitrate, but recovering ammonium nitrate from it is a fairly simple chemical reaction.

That is what I think I know, here are some “known unknowns” that would help sharpen the overall analysis if they can be resolved.

  • Is Homs indeed the site of Syria’s in-country nitrogen production?
  • Who controls the plant? The Homs area? Who is in a position to divert ammonia?
  • Based on the Reuters article, global Captagon consumption is 21 tons. A tiny ammonia plant will produce a hundred tons a day.
  • How much, if any, of the plant’s output is ammonium nitrate?

The last point is important. There are many reports of Syrian regime helicopters dropping ‘barrel bombs’. These are 55 gallon drums, old water heaters, or lengths of iron pipe. The first video shows a string of devices employing parachutes to retard their fall. This is sometimes employed to permit a low flying aircraft to escape a large blast, but I believe this might be a strategy to reduce the failure rate of these hastily constructed IEDs, which use improvised impact fuses.

The second video shows a large blast that begins with a rolling cloud of flame and smoke. Hollywood dramatizes action sequences by using incendiary charges in place of actual high explosives, which often look like this, but high explosives don’t cause effects like this unless they hit something that has a liquid fuel supply. If the regime is making ammonium nitrate/fuel oil bombs and they’re adjusting the mixture for incendiary as well as blast effects, the use of incendiaries against civilian populations is a war crime.

Syria’s civil war has been understood in the west as conflict between the following:

  • Alawite/Shiite versus Sunni
  • Assad regime versus the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
  • Former Soviet client state versus western friendly nations

While those three are all somewhat true, the missing component is the haves versus the have nots. People who are treated unfairly protest, if they’re starved as well they will engage in open revolt against the administration that is failing to meet their minimum needs.

Syrian Wheat Outlook on 12/8/2012 was my first inspection of agriculture in the country. Seven months later the New York Times provided information that led to Syrian Wheat Becomes Strategic. Food security in the country is a complex issue, but if you can only watch a single metric, wheat availability, price, and quality are a good proxy.

Attempting to stop thousands of foreign fighters by direct attack is the most destructive strategy of all for Syria. Stopping the flow of arms and explosives into the country, as well as interdicting the repurposing of domestic fertilizer into explosives attacks the problem at a lower level.

If the region’s entire Captagon habit were supplanted by methamphetamine it would only require one tenth of the daily production from a tiny ammonia plant to fill the requirement. If the diversion of ammonia is happening and it can be pinched off at the source this defunds a portion of the conflict.

The most likely entity that could protect an ammonia production source and divert a portion of it to drug production is … the Assad regime. If it were a rebel facility and pair of helicopters dropping a string of those parachute bombs would easily disable it.

It is functionally impossible to separate the production of food and the making of IEDs in arid regions where production depends on smallholders using bagged fertilizer. Ponder that concept while I go off and dig deeper into Syrian agriculture.

African & Mideast Fertilizer Usage

I was going through old notes on ammonia producers and I stumbled upon Agrium’s annual factbook. I was planning to start with North American production, but there was an interesting section on Africa and the Mideast:

Africa and the Middle East are markets with significant future growth potential. Our ownership interest in the MOPCO nitrogen facility in Egypt provides us with a strong presence in the region. In 2010, Africa and the Middle East consumed 5 mmt of Nitrogen, 2.2 mmt of Potash and 0.7 mmt of Phosphate.

Egypt and Iran are the largest nutrient consumers in Africa and the Middle East. This region is especially important in production and exports, particularity nitrogen and phosphates. The top five producing countries (based on NPK nutrient tonnes) in the region are Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Qatar and Egypt rank among the top 20 countries in the world in production of natural gas. Access to low-cost natural gas is expected to support the continued growth of nitrogen production in the Middle East.

Agriculture contributes significantly to the GDP of Africa and the Middle East. Available arable land in Africa and the Middle East is approximately 223 million hectares and 40 million hectares respectively . The major crops of this region are corn, sorghum, wheat and millet . Corn is a major crop produced in both Africa and the Middle east, with 62.9 million tonnes produced in 2009 and approximately 30.6 million hectares harvested

The 5 mmt is five million metric tons and I believe this is the total expressed in term of ammonia alone, not the weight of follow-on products. This section on the Egyptian ammonia plant gives the hint that this is the case – 104,000 tons made, 6,000 tons used directly, and then 170,000 tons of urea are derived from the 98,000 tons of ammonia? I peeked at the urea page and the ratio looks right based on the atomic masses of the constituents.

Screen Shot 2012-12-31 at 12.22.41 AM

I also learned something about IED production in Afghanistan from the urea page. Thanks to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing we now mix ammonium nitrate in a solution with urea, called UAN, which is not useful as an oxidizer. I know we have a problem with ammonium nitrate going into Afghanistan and I always wondered why this wasn’t replaced with urea. As it turns out, urea has to go on either right before or while it is raining and the hotter it gets the more of it decomposes to gaseous ammonia. Ammonium nitrate is simply a better choice for small farmers who need a bagged solid rather than liquid fertilizer.

Forty million hectares under cultivation in the Mideast? A hectare is 2.47 acres so that’s 154,000 square miles. The U.S. peaked at 133 million hectares or 516,000 square miles. The Mideast has 384 million people, the U.S. 310 million. The Mideast is trying to support 960 people per square kilometer, the U.S. just 233.

Going back to English units, the Mideast is try to support four persons per acre, the U.S. just one. If rain was steady and everyone in the Mideast was distributed evenly that quarter acre number, roughly 10,000 square feet, ought to be fine. A manicured quarter acre is a very large garden, roughly double the size of the one my parents kept to feed four of us.

I know much less about the global phosphorus and potassium fertilizer markets. This is one of the gaps in my knowledge that will be addressed in 2013.

Global Oil, Global Grain

I published the National Renewable Ammonia Architecture in December of 2008 and I returned with an expanded version of it five months later. The only thing missing from the model in terms of inputs and outputs was the atmospheric chemistry effects.

If you make ammonia you create carbon dioxide, if you use ammonia or a derivative as a nitrogen fertilizer agricultural lands emit methane and there is some nitrous oxide in the mix, both of which are far more potent than carbon dioxide. If you burn ammonia as a fuel you get some nitrous oxide, but a properly tuned engine will produce less carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gasses. This area is the hardest for me, due to my lack of familiarity with certain industrial processes, such as the steam methane reformer, and the twenty five years between me and my one and only college chemistry class.

What started as a quest to make local use of wind resources evolved into a vision of a carbon free future, and then into some grim findings regarding the connection between synthetic ammonia, food security, and global warming. The Dead Gods Of Atacama is a photo essay on the preceding two centuries of fossil, and then later synthetic nitrates, and their implications for our species.

While I gave up on the renewable ammonia plant pursuit after just one paying design, I have continued to keep an eye on fertilizer prices, drought, and global grain markets. My plan here at the start of 2013 is to develop a model based on open source data that will track various inputs such as the prices for ammonia and diesel fuel, the grain markets, global weather data, and see if this provides predicting data for social unrest in various parts of the world. I called the 2011 downfall of the Egyptian government in August of 2010 based on a handful of factors and I was amazed when this proved to be correct, both in timing and in the reasons mainstream news cited.

This evening I began collecting some global maps of various aspects that matter for developing such a model.

Global Oil Reserves

Global Oil Reserves

Global Oil Cartogram

Global Oil Cartogram

How much oil we have matters at a global level and thus far it’s been fungible – if sanctions occur somewhere the system just routes around it, with the policy providing just a bit of drag and profit opportunities for some market players. I have seen a number of articles that speak of a bilateral oil/food trade.

Global Water Insecurity Cartogram

Global Water Insecurity Cartogram

If you don’t have enough water you won’t get enough grain. Things are changing rapidly with our climate and we already have trouble in this area. Watch for situations where water becomes a very serious issue, say the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

Global Grain Flows All Types

Global Grain Flows All Types

I found this amazing large map showing grain flows by type on Cool Geography. This is very detailed, I’m going to study it closely, but it’s a large amount of information packed into a very large image.

Global Wheat Producers And Consumers

Global Wheat Producers And Consumers

I have treated global wheat production and consumption as a proxy for overall food security. Tracking this overlapped my interest in fertilizer and it was of a manageable size. Questions I have now are how closely this proxy parallels what is actually happening, and how much effort would it take to automate tracking of data to create a live model of what the large image with all grain types shows.

Global Calorie Consumption

Global Calorie Consumption

Global Malnutrition

Global Malnutrition

I found it interesting that global calorie consumption and global malnutrition weren’t the inverse of each other, but I don’t know the dates on these maps. I really need a slick way to present multi-variable country data rather than hunting for maps of what I need. Like everything I do, my views in this area and the methods I use to reach them will go through a number of incremental improvements through 2013.

FAO Zimbabwe Food Security Paper

I located a Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. paper on Zimbabwe food security from 2010.

This related report from the spring of 2012 was interesting to me: ZIMBABWE – HARVEST LEAN, UN AGENCIES FAO & WFP BARRED FROM FOOD ASSESSMENTS ARE PROVIDING TARGETED AID

The Ministry of Agriculture is still carrying out the first round of its crop and food assessment. According to Agriculture Minister Joseph Made, a member of President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party, crop and food assessments are “a national security matter that should be treated with the utmost caution and exclusivity”.

I can think of several scenarios in which Mugabe’s shaky regime would not want western aid organizations inside the country, but they would accept assistance.

  • Thwart any public embarrassment & attendant international pressure to reform
  • Restrict information gathering or agent recruiting for other reasons (overthrow)
  • Obtain aid in such a fashion as to permit cronies to loot before distribution

I will probably take the hints in the FAO Mission Highlights and compare that to the fertilizer production numbers. I strongly suspect that the Sable Chemicals ammonia plant in Kwe Kwe running at higher than 10% capacity solves this problem:

Therefore around 1.68 million (1.29 rural and 0.39 urban) should be supported with 133 000 tonnes of food assistance (including 111 000 tonnes of cereals) through various modalities.

A Revolution In Electrolyzers

If you want to build a renewable ammonia plant your number one cost is going to be electricity. As a rule of thumb each megawatt is good for a thousand tons a year. The 8,760 megawatt hours would cost $175,000 annually at the Niagara Falls NYPA job creator’s rate of $0.02/kwh. This is roughly half of the overall cost and debt service makes up the lion’s share of the rest.

Electrolyzers are about half of the plant capital cost, but if this story about cobalt-phosphorus electrolysis is something that is on track for commercialization that number could drop significantly. Right now an electrolyzer requires a good bit of platinum, and the precious metals market has been a crazy roller coaster for several years:


Here is another commodity price that matters – the FOB ammonia cost at the ports on the lower Mississippi. $307 in 2007, spiking to $590 in 2008, crashing to $251 in 2009, recovering to $396 in 2010, then spiking again to $520/ton in 2011. Renewable production would have done well in 2008 and 2011, broke even in 2010, and 2007 and 2009 prices might have resulted in a plant shutdown. There is a lower bound for a sensible renewable ammonia plant size at the $100 million mark, creating a 100,000 ton/year plant. You can’t make the case for an investment on something that might get used.


There are many other factors involved, and here is a good one. Our 3,100 mile national ammonia pipeline network runs from the Gulf of Mexico to Iowa, and then forms a star shape centered on Iowa – the heart of corn country. Barge is another common transport method, but all of the marginal producer territory is serviced with rail. If you can make ammonia in Pierre, South Dakota rather than unloading and moving it from New Orleans you save $52/ton.


Electricity and capital are the input costs, freight cost is a function of where it makes sense to build, and the commodity price for ammonia tells you what profits will be. Ammonia used to shadow natural gas prices, but it decoupled in 2008 – gas prices went south, while ammonia headed to the stratosphere. I have never heard a satisfactory explanation for this.

Do you see the strategic environmental issues?

If we’re going to have an effective carbon tax it’ll be about $60/ton. I need to do the stoichiometry on this but I think a one to one ratio of natural gas input to ammonia output is about right – another $60/ton savings, as renewable ammonia is carbon free.

The anti-fracking efforts nationally seem to be gaining steam. If they shut down shale gas production, which I hope they manage for the good of us all, the natural gas price will go up and stay up. Ammonia and natgas decoupled, but they didn’t totally dissociate. 70% of global production is natgas based and the 30% that isn’t is Chinese coal fired plants. Almost all of what is produced in the U.S. is natural gas based, and half of the 40% we import is produced from the natgas pool in Trinidad.

Finance now is harder than it was in 2008, but it could be that all the chaos in energy markets will combine to create a floor for ammonia production, permitting long term predictions.

Complex, isn’t it? I feel like I should build a model and feed the last forty years of data into it, to see if I can make some statements about what happens next.