One of the biggest global problems: reactive nitrogen

Wednesday September 24, 2014 15:24

Nitrogen. We simply need it for food production and for manufacturing hundreds of products. At the same time, however, it can be extremely hazardous to our health and to the environment. In recent years, reactive nitrogen has become one of the world's biggest problems. Researcher Albert Bleeker explains what ECN is doing to chart the problem and how we contribute to finding an effective solution.

“We cannot do without nitrogen. I want to make that clear first," says Albert Bleeker, senior researcher of Integral Nitrogen-related Problems at ECN. “At least 78% of our atmosphere is composed of nitrogen (N2). This is non-reactive nitrogen, however, and it is not harmful. Plants require reactive nitrogen to live, however, which means we need this type of nitrogen for our food production. Reactive nitrogen is formed - chemically or biologically - from nitrogen in the open air. The problem is that too much reactive nitrogen has entered the air and the groundwater in the previous decades. One of the reasons is that we are using more fossil fuels, and are applying high quantities of fertiliser and livestock manure to the land.” 

One molecule, dozens of effects
Reactive nitrogen excess plays a role in many world-wide issues. It affects the food supply, air quality, life in coastal waters and oceans, biodiversity on land, climate change, drinking water supply and the hole in the ozone layer. Once it is in the environment, a single molecule of reactive nitrogen can have multiple effects.

A global problem requires smart policy decisions
The increase in reactive nitrogen has wide-ranging effects. This is why we must deal with it in a smarter way. What can we do about it? Bleeker claims there are two options. “The best option would be to ensure that there is no excess of reactive nitrogen. Everyone understands that artificial fertiliser guarantees a good harvest. Nevertheless, we must use this fertiliser more efficiently to reduce environmental damage. There is already a policy of maximum fertilisation in Europe. In countries like India and China, however, we are witnessing excessive use of fertiliser to feed the growing population. Secondly, we must try to limit the negative effects as much as possible. That might seem obvious, but raw sewage is still being discharged into the surface water in poorer countries. We can convert reactive nitrogen into N2 again. Examples include built-in catalysts in cars and the biological purification of waste water.”

From insight to an effective solution
ECN researches the interaction between nitrogen and the environment. The interaction between nitrogen, biomass production and use, and biodiversity is studied on a global scale. Bleeker: “In addition, we also take measurements in local areas, like the 2nd Maasvlakte or the Brabantse Peel in the Netherlands. In those places, we measure the concentration and deposition, for example, of reactive nitrogen. We analyse the effectiveness of the current policies of the government and the municipalities. Together with policy-makers, we subsequently investigate which steps can be taken to address their nitrogen problem.”

Would you like to receive more information about ECN's tool or our research in the field of nitrogen-related problems? Albert Bleeker will be happy to tell you more.

You can also watch the following video: 

Category: September, Corporate, Environment