May 5, 2014


US researchers study links between fertilisers and greenhouse gas emissions



USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) researchers are learning more about the mechanics of how nitrogen fertilisers contribute to the development of greenhouse gases.


Nitrous oxide can absorb 300 times more radiation than carbon dioxide. After the application of nitrogen fertilisers, soil microbes can convert nitrogen into nitrate and then into nitrous oxide. However, ARS soil scientist Rodney Venterea suspected nitrous oxide emissions are even more strongly correlated with levels of nitrite, another form of nitrogen that is not commonly measured.


Venterea conducted a study in corn over two growing seasons that examined the effects of different nitrogen fertiliser sources and application methods on nitrous oxide. The fertilisers were conventional urea, polymer-coated urea, urea infused with microbial inhibitors, and a 50/50 mixture of conventional urea and urea with inhibitors.


Venterea's results indicated that nitrous oxide emissions were strongly linked to soil nitrite levels, which accounted for 44-73% of the variation in nitrous oxide emissions. The results also showed that the lowest levels of nitrite and nitrous oxide occurred with the fertiliser that contained urea-infused microbial inhibitors. The 50/50 mixture also reduced both nitrite and nitrous oxide.


He believes that nitrite can produce nitrous oxide quickly under a broader range of conditions, especially when soil is in an oxygenated condition, which it tends to be most of the time except following large rainfall events.


Venterea and his co-author Bijesh Maharjan, published these results in 2013 in Soil Biology and Biochemistry. This work was conducted as part of GRACENET (Greenhouse-Gas Reduction through Agricultural Carbon Enhancement Network), a national network of ARS research projects investigating the effects of management practices on soil carbon sequestration, trace gas emissions, and environmental quality. The study supports the USDA priority of responding to global climate change.