Defying Malthus: Chem. E’s are helping

Courtesy: DuPont

Recently, I was privileged to attend a conference :Feeding the World” sponsored by the Chemical Heritage Foundation in conjunction with the International Year of Chemistry 2011. A range of eminent speakers from universities, NGO’s and companies involved in agricultural chemicals gave interesting speeches under the general theme of providing food for a global population expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050.  The key issue addressed was how to improve crop yield in regions where the yields of corn, soy beans, wheat and other major crops harvested  are far below what they are in much of the developed world. The region of greatest need is sub-Sahara Africa, where in most cases, poor soils, insufficient fertilizer and little   use of herbicides and pesticides often result in very poor crops yields.   Interestingly, the soils in Southeast Asia, where there is an equally urgent need for food for a rapidly growing population, are generally much better than in Africa.

Courtesy: DuPont

For example, it is much easier to grow dense crops of rice there than in Africa.

A number of global companies specialize in ag chemicals and the development of better, more pest-resistant seeds, including DuPont, BASF and Dow Agrosciences, all of which sent speakers to the conference. Higher crop yields per acre or hectare were a common theme. Still, a considerable amount of optimism was expressed in terms of African farmers taking advantage of various means to improve their production of foodstuffs and overcoming logistical and political obstacles to become more sucessful.
The role of chemists and  chemical engineers  was stressed. BASF reminded the audience that the company’s development in 1913 of a process to “fix” nitrogen to produce synthetic ammonia- the so-called Haber-Boschprocess made

posssible today’s widespread, worldwide use of synthetic ammonia and ammonia -based fertilizers. Initially, reciprocating compressors were used to pump the hydrogen and nitrogen into the high pressure reactors where ammonia synthesis takes place. In the 1970s, chemical engineers came up with a new flowsheet using large centrifugal compressors and this allowed the construction of today’s 5000 tons/day ammonia plants.
A number of today’s pesticides and herbicides, in many cases consisting of complex molecules, were  and continue to be developed in laboratories and pilot plants. Chemical engineers than take the data and design large operating plants where these

Courtesy: BASF

chemicals are produced at prices farmers can afford.  But there is considerable room for improvement.  The BASF speaker pointed out that almost half of today’s crop yield is lost to weed, disease and insects.

The world’s need for more and more food for its rapidly growing population represents a great opportunity. Related to the need for even more effective herbicides and pesticides is the need for more clean water for irrigation. Much has already been done in desalination and reverse osmosis, but more approaches and improvements are needed.  The speakers were concerned that not enough chemists and engineers are applying to work in these fields.
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