J-WAFS in action: Rocks for Crops – Delivering affordable potassium fertilizer across Africa
Antoine Allanore, Assistant Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, is leading one of seven research projects recently awarded J-WAFS funding. Antoine aims to develop a new kind of potassium fertilizer derived from K feldspar, a widely available mineral that can be produced locally, rather than relying on expensive supplies of imported potassium chloride.
Opening Doors spoke to Professor Allanore about the project and its aims.
What is the title of your research project?
The project is called ‘Affordable Potassium Fertilizer from K Feldspar for Africa’.
What issue are you seeking to address?
The United Nations forecasts a global population of 8.5 billion by 2030 – increasing 1.2 billion in just 15 years from 2015 – and hitting 9.7 billion by 2050. These growth rates are already startling, but even more so when you consider much of this is expected in the parts of the world already struggling to meet the food and water needs of their current population today. The UN Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that, with 33% more mouths to feed by 2050, food production will have to increase by 70% – so we need to look at ways to grow more food, more efficiently. Fertilizer is one way to increase yield, but in countries where there is most need, imported solutions are very expensive.
Today, Canada, Russia and Belarus account for more than 85% of the world’s production of potassium chloride (KCI), which is the most widely used compound for potassium fertilization in agriculture. While supplies are cheap and easily available for countries in the northern hemisphere, transportation logistics ensure KCI is expensive and scarce in the southern hemisphere. At the same time, soils in the southern hemisphere and the tropics have a different make-up to soils in the north. This means that KCI is not as effective for fertilization in these areas. So, we are aiming to develop a new potassium fertilizer derived by hydrothermal processing of potassium feldspar – a widely available mineral across the globe, including Africa – in the presence of calcium oxide. This could be particularly useful to tropical agriculture across North Africa, where 1) potassium chloride transportation costs are prohibitively high, 2) the soils are not so well suited to potassium chloride fertilizer and 3) potassium feldspar (K feldspar) is readily available.
Why has potassium chloride traditionally been the most widely used compound for potassium fertilization?
By the end of the 19th century, agronomists had discovered a link between soil types and certain elements in the ground. But until the discovery of salt mines in Germany, nobody really had access to high-potency potassium chloride. Suddenly Germany had easy access to potassium chloride – you didn’t have to go very deep, it was almost at ground level. Then, at the turn of the 20th century, these mines were discovered all over Europe, Russia and North America, so potassium chloride became the main option for soil fertilization.
Can you briefly describe the benefits of your proposed solution?
Our proposal does not rely on the complex and costly supply chain of potassium chloride. Instead, we are using K feldspar, which is widely available almost anywhere. So rather than importing potassium chloride from Canada, Russia or Germany, we can use local resources and develop the local industry. At the same time, because it is being produced locally, it should be possible to tweak the process to ensure that the end-product is more suitable for local soil conditions.
This creates a double benefit: you’re helping farmers with a more effective fertilizer, and you’re helping the economy by developing local industry. There’s also a third potential benefit, in that countries in Africa with readily accessible reserves of K feldspar could become producers and exporters of fertilizer, like Russia, Germany or Canada are today. So it could open up new opportunities for mining, as well as production.
What are the key challenges you need to address?
We have to consider the complexity of soil science and agronomy. We are still at the beginning of understanding how our product will interact with other nutrients in the soil and crops. These farming complexities are what we hope to tackle, particularly in understudied regions.
The first thing we need to do is understand the type of soil in which we are going to use the product. Soils differ greatly around the world due to a range of reasons, from the amount of water they hold through to their different geological origins and, sometimes, previous use of the soil.
Africa, obviously, is a huge area, with different soils in each region. The crop being grown is another factor we must consider. Once we know the soil type and the crop, we will be able to tweak and design our material to ensure it is going to be able to perform according to the needs of the farmers.
This latest round of J-WAFS funding run until August 2019. Do you expect your research to be complete by then?
Realistically, I think we’ll be able to complete ‘greenhouse tests’ by then. These are small scale tests on plants that replicate the conditions of the soil, of the crop and of the way the farmer grows it. The next stage will be to conduct field tests and soils tests on a slightly larger scale. If the research is successful, we’ll be ready to conduct six-month or one-year field trials, which will allow people to see large-scale performance of the material. After that, we’ll need to work with industry and commercial partners to scale the product and take it to market.
At a high level, this is a perfect chance to test our ability to adapt the fertilizer to new regions, although there will always be need for more research for us to fully understand the impact of our product on different crops and in different soil types.
 the science of soil management and crop production
Artistic renaissance redefining our global presenceIt’s never been a better time to be an artist – or an arts enthusiast – in the Middle East. With a rich cultural history, one increasingly unafraid to splice with modern perspectives, the region is attracting the world’s gaze as never before. ...Read more
Developing a new planning model for large water projectsJ-WAFS’ research explores how city planners can best prepare for the uncertainties of climate change. ...Read more
Water flows through the 2018 World Economic Forum Global Risks ReportBy Andi Sutton, Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) This January 2500 delegates and 70 world leaders from 100 different countries braved the heaviest snowfall in decades to meet in Davos, Switzerland at the World Economic Forum (WEF). The extreme weather provided an apt backdrop for the sessions ahead, which were focused on the blizzard of social, economic, and env ...Read more
A war on waste and a spray that stays: J-WAFS cultivates innovation to address pressing food and agriculture problemsA coating that reduces food waste by increasing the shelf life of produce, and a spray that reduces pollution caused by pesticide run-off, are among two of the latest innovations to win recognition from the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS), in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) second annual Rabobank-MIT Food and Agribusiness Innovation Prize. Picking ...Read more
Securing food and water for allMankind’s most significant issues are being tackled by an elite group of researchers and entrepreneurs at the home of the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The world’s population is predicted to grow by more than two billion by the mid-21st Century, according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs . That ...Read more
Securing Africa’s food supplies: How J-WAFS funding is changing the future of fertilizers in AfricaA research project supported by a J-WAFS Seed Grant in 2017, is making significant progress in understanding the approaches needed to generate potash-independent fertilizers suitable for African soils – a key step in the battle to sustainably meet future food demands across the continent. Antoine Allanore, Associate Professor of Metallurgy in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering ...Read more
Kids in the classroom: Improving education for children in developing economiesNew ways to potentially increase the number of children enrolled in and attending full-time education in low- and middle-income countries have been identified by a comprehensive new report published by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The report – Roll Call: Getting Children into School  – drew lessons from 58 randomized ...Read more
J-WAFS in action: providing safe drinking water through woodRohit Karnik, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, and Amy Smith, Senior Lecturer at MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and founding director of D-Labs at MIT, are leading a group of researchers hoping to harness the natural qualities of xylem wood to provide safe, affordable drinking water to low-income groups. Opening Doors spoke to Rohit Karnik, Amy Smith, and team me ...Read more
J-WAFS in Action: Providing safe, clean milk to rural communitiesPranay Jain is a graduate student in mechanical engineering at MIT, working alongside Professor Sanjay Sarma in the Field Intelligence Laboratory. Pranay is part of a team, funded by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS), that is developing a new low-cost handheld device to test milk quality and safety. Opening Doors spoke to Pranay about the project and its a ...Read more
J-WAFS in Action: 21st Century DesalinationKishor Govind Nayar is a doctoral student researching Intelligent Selective Electrodialysis (ISED) and its potential impact on agriculture. Funded by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT, Kishor’s research could bring substantial cost and water savings to crop production in the world’s driest regions, unlocking their agricultural potential and helping to addres ...Read more