#026 A Fertile and Loving Partnership

N2 Applied has developed a solution to harvest nitrogen from the air using electricity and develops this into an efficient fertiliser. They can also turn liquid organic wastes, such as livestock slurry, digested from biogas plants or wastewater into an efficient fertiliser.  Their solution means food production with fewer emissions by making fertiliser literally from air and from liquid organic waste. 

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Coming up in this Circular Story

  • How love always shows the way;

  • Why we need fertilisers;

  • What their magic ingredient does;

  • How N2 Agri works closely with their set of partners.

It all began with an online date…from Libya to Oslo.

Rune and Grete are the founders of N2-Applied who met through an online dating site where Grete, sitting in Oslo, received a message from Rune based in Libya, working for the fertiliser company YARA.  Rune’s opening line was “Do you believe Birkelands Electric Arc has a future?”  With a question that was so niche, Rune was hoping to work out who might be interesting to chat to. To his surprise it worked almost too well – as Grete knew exactly what he was talking about. 

When they had an actual date, their romance blossomed through discussions about fertilisers. It was clear to Grete that Rune had a brilliant idea and together with her knowledge on developing technologies and companies they could really be a successful team. They decided to quit their jobs and began to develop what might be a new fertiliser revolution. 

So what is the problem they are solving here?

More than 22 million tons of ammonia is lost from livestock farms around the world every year and 90% of all ammonia emissions come from agricultural activities.  Ammonia is the main source of nitrogen pollution which can have a negative effect on human health and biodiversity. 

Loss of ammonia is also a burden to farmers who need to replenish lost nutrients through the purchase of expensive, fossil-fuel based nitrogen fertiliser.  Around 50% of the world’s population is dependent on fossil based chemical fertiliser.

N2’s technology enables the livestock farmer to recycle nitrogen and produce his own fertiliser with lower greenhouse gas emissions, improved resource efficiency and reduced cost. The company wants farmers to eventually substitute traditional fossil fuel-based industrial fertiliser for a much more effective and sustainable version. To become more sustainable, agriculture needs to improve its environmental footprint through the whole process of growing food.

Sounds too good to be true…?

N2 Applied can place a unit on the farm to harvest nitrogen from the air which is then absorbed into a liquid organic substrate. This increases the nitrogen content to make the plants grow better, reduces the need to buy fossil based chemical fertiliser and reduces the emissions related to air quality.  What are the positive effects of the N2 Applied technology?

  • Ammonia loss from agriculture is the leading cause of reduced air quality in Europe – this can mean asthma, cancer and even premature death. Reduction in ammonia and nitrogen pollution is crucial for human health and biodiversity.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions are reduced globally through healthier forms of fertilisation.
  • The process also stops stinky methane production and so takes away any bad odor – so the smell of manure can even be reduced by their technology!

The fertiliser revolution

Their idea uses complex technology to solve a simple problem – Reducing loss of nutrients (ammonia through the air), better utilisation of organic fertiliser, less need for chemical fertiliser and reduced global emissions. 

Their idea is to promote healthy food production without needing more land and simultaneously lowering dangerous emissions to the environment. With a growing global population food production the agriculture industry is now under scrutiny to make more sustainable changes.

Why do we need fertilisers?

For certain plants to grow, soil can become depleted of nutrients – fertilisers are used to replace what soil needs to maintain health. Natural fertiliser is often made using manure from livestock, or from other organic waste. However, large scale agriculture requires the use of synthetic fertilisers – without which the world’s food production wouldn’t be able to keep pace with the population growth. According to ‘Our World in Data’ about half of the world’s population is dependent on synthetic fertilisers. Synthetic fertilisers have an extremely detrimental effect on the environment and so scientists need to look for alternatives.

Synthetic fertilisers are extremely polluting to the environment both in their production and through the spread on the land. Synthetic fertilisers can lead to significant water pollution also and this problem is becoming more widespread.

The Magic Ingredient

Nitrogen is an essential element – it is what makes up proteins and DNA in our bodies, and is the main nutrient for plants. It is because of nitrogen the sky appears blue as the air consists of 78% nitrogen. However,it is very hard to harvest nitrogen which is a big problem for agriculture. Some plants are able to harvest small amounts through ‘fixation’ and nitrogen can also be harvested artificially with the Haber-Bosch process.  Some nitrogen is even “released” when lightning strikes! The technology of N2 Applied is using methods similar to the process of how lightning works to obtain nitrogen released into the air.

Growing plants and growing a network

N2 Applied collaborates with partners across countries and on several levels, working with fertiliser technology to make it more efficient – their partner network is large and growing by the day.

The team has begun a cooperation with the University of Berkley (US), Prof. David Graves, and NMBU, working together on agronomy and emissions. N2 Applied this year alone has completed trials in 17 locations in 8 countries, to prove that their method means yield can increase, emissions are reduced and nitrogen efficiency improved. There are many factors that influence growing plants such as weather, climate, and soil, so the team is undertaking experiments within various conditions. It can take a full growing season to obtain proper results so the testing time can be pretty lengthy.

According to your experience as an entrepreneur, what are the biggest challenges and/or barriers to become more circular or sustainable?

“Developing new technology takes time and costs money. Working with agronomy it needs to be demonstrated and tested under several conditions, and the spring only comes once a year. Agriculture isn’t always the easiest sector to attract interest to or understand. Coming in with a new solution with several benefits is also challenging, and the need to balance profit and purpose towards all stakeholders is needed.”

What would a sustainable economy look like exactly? 

“A sustainable economy is where what is best for health and environment is the cheapest and the necessities for life are free and available for all through local systems of production and consumption that works with what you have. “

From linear to circular

N2 Applied is shaking up the industry by moving from a linear and centralised fertiliser production method to a more circular and local on-farm process. Their solution means farmers can keep the nutrients they need in the slurry, and not take them away. This makes the slurry a better fertiliser and makes it possible to offer more precision farming with an organic fertiliser. This is done locally without adding any kind of chemical substances. To produce their version of a fertiliser, a farmer only needs air and electricity, – preferably produced on the farm.

There is no other global solution that can increase yield, stop ammonia pollution and does not create climate emissions without the use of chemical substances. The possibility of this technology installed locally on a farm or biogas plant with electricity gives farmers much more control on the value chain.

Circular Quote
of the day:

“We need a s*** revolution”

Grete Sønsteby

Co-Founder N2 Applied

A truly circular company with clever design

Today’s food production is a linear model where nutrients are lost to air, water and nature causing environmental problems all over the world, and represents an economic loss for farmers. While N2 Applied offers a circular solution to this problem, they also want to create circularity in the production of the actual unit which provides this technology. The company is building the unit in modules so that it can partly be renewed and upgraded when needed so that it doesn’t need to be wasted each time improvements are made. The company wants to operate as circular from the very beginning and in the design phase.  

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