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
A sustainable future for all: Community Jameel initiatives recognized by Saudi Arabian governmentCommunity Jameel has received recognition from the government of Saudi Arabia for its work to help make progress on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agreed by the United Nations member states in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. ...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. ...Read more
J-WAFS in action – revisited Superheated steam, but not as we know itOpening Doors caught up with Gang Chen in Boston for an update on his ‘Floating, Heat Localizing Solar Receivers for Distributed Desalination’ project. ...Read more
J-WAFS in action: collaborative solutions for our greatest challengesJohn H. Lienhard V, Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Mechanical Engineering and Director of J-WAFS, MIT delivered an opening speech at the Indian Institute of Technology Ropar (IIT Ropar) on December 3rd, 2018. ...Read more
J-WAFS achievements – a proud history of progressAlmost five years on from its formation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the global reach and enormous potential of the research supported by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) grants is becoming ever clearer. ...Read more
Future of Food: how J-WAFS is making a global impactSince it was established in 2014, J-WAFS has gathered attention around the world for its pioneering work to help tackle global water and food challenges. ...Read more
J-WAFS in action: A wearable testing kit to check for E. coli in waterThe initial focus is on communities in Nepal, with a medium-term goal of distributing the kits in other markets. ...Read more
The Greatest Challenge We Face?It may be hard to imagine today, but a world without water – at least water for human use - is not such a far-fetched scenario as you might think. ...Read more
Saudi Arabia targets cultural tourists with major investment programWith new recognition from UNESCO and investments across the country, Saudi Arabia is aiming to become a cultural tourism hotspot. ...Read more
J-Clinic set to revolutionize disease prevention, detection and treatmentJ-Clinic set to revolutionize disease prevention, detection and treatment ...Read more