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Six tomato plants grown with and without nitrate fertilizer on nutrient-poor sand/clay soil. One of the plants in the nutrient-poor soil has died.

Fertilizers enhance the growth of plants. This goal is met in two ways, the traditional one being additives that provide nutrients. The second mode by which some fertilizers act is to enhance the effectiveness of the soil by modifying its water retention and aeration. This article, like many on fertilizers, emphasises the nutritional aspect. Fertilizers typically provide, in varying proportions:[1]

The nutrients required for healthy plant life are classified according to the elements, but the elements are not used as fertilizers. Instead compounds containing these elements are the basis of fertilizers. The macro-nutrients are consumed in larger quantities and are present in plant tissue in quantities from 0.15% to 6.0% on a dry matter (DM) (0% moisture) basis. Plants are made up of four main elements: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen. Carbon, hydrogen and oxygen are widely available as water and carbon dioxide. Although nitrogen makes up most of the atmosphere, it is in a form that is unavailable to plants. Nitrogen is the most important fertilizer since nitrogen is present in proteins, DNA and other components (e.g., chlorophyll). To be nutritious to plants, nitrogen must be made available in a "fixed" form. Only some bacteria and their host plants (notably legumes) can fix atmospheric nitrogen (N2) by converting it to ammonia. Phosphate is required for the production of DNA and ATP, the main energy carrier in cells, as well as certain lipids.

Micronutrients are consumed in smaller quantities and are present in plant tissue on the order of parts-per-million (ppm), ranging from 0.15 to 400 ppm DM, or less than 0.04% DM.[2][3] These elements are often present at the active sites of enzymes that carry out the plant's metabolism. Because these elements enable catalysts (enzymes) their impact far exceeds their weight percentage.


Fertilizers are classified in several ways. They are classified according to whether they provide a single nutrient (e.g., K, P, or N), in which case they are classified as "straight fertilizers." "Multinutrient fertilizers" (or "complex fertilizers") provide two or more nutrients, for example N and P. Fertilizers are also sometimes classified as inorganic (the topic of most of this article) versus organic. Inorganic fertilizers exclude carbon-containing materials except ureas. Organic fertilizers are usually (recycled) plant- or animal-derived matter. Inorganic are sometimes called synthetic fertilizers since various chemical treatments are required for their manufacture.[4]

Single nutrient ("straight") fertilizers

The main nitrogen-based straight fertilizer is ammonia or its solutions. Ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) is also widely used. Urea is another popular source of nitrogen, having the advantage that it is solid and non-explosive, unlike ammonia and ammonium nitrate, respectively. A few percent of the nitrogen fertilizer market (4% in 2007)[5] has been met by calcium ammonium nitrate (Ca(NO3)2•NH4NO3•10H2O).

The main straight phosphate fertilizers are the superphosphates. "Single superphosphate" (SSP) consists of 14–18% P2O5, again in the form of Ca(H2PO4)2, but also phosphogypsum (CaSO4 · 2 H2O). Triple superphosphate (TSP) typically consists of 44-48% of P2O5 and no gypsum. A mixture of single superphosphate and triple superphosphate is called double superphosphate. More than 90% of a typical superphosphate fertilizer is water-soluble.

Multinutrient fertilizers

These fertilizers are the most common. They consist of two or more nutrient components.

Binary (NP, NK, PK) fertilizers

Major two-component fertilizers provide both nitrogen and phosphorus to the plants. These are called NP fertilizers. The main NP fertilizers are monoammonium phosphate (MAP) and diammonium phosphate (DAP). The active ingredient in MAP is NH4H2PO4. The active ingredient in DAP is (NH4)2HPO4. About 85% of MAP and DAP fertilizers are soluble in water.

NPK fertilizers

Main article: Labeling of fertilizer

NPK fertilizers are three-component fertilizers providing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

NPK rating is a rating system describing the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in a fertilizer. NPK ratings consist of three numbers separated by dashes (e.g., 10-10-10 or 16-4-8) describing the chemical content of fertilizers.[6][7] The first number represents the percentage of nitrogen in the product; the second number, P2O5; the third, K2O. Fertilizers do not actually contain P2O5 or K2O, but the system is a conventional shorthand for the amount of the phosphorus (P) or potassium (K) in a fertilizer. A 50-pound (23 kg) bag of fertilizer labeled 16-4-8 contains 8 lb (3.6 kg) of nitrogen (16% of the 50 pounds), an amount of phosphorus equivalent to that in 2 pounds of P2O5 (4% of 50 pounds), and 4 pounds of K2O (8% of 50 pounds). Most fertilizers are labeled according to this N-P-K convention, although Australian convention, following an N-P-K-S system, adds a fourth number for sulfur, and uses elemental values for all values including P and K.[8]


The main micronutrients are molybdenum, zinc, and copper. These elements are provided as water-soluble salts. Iron presents special problems because it converts to insoluble (bio-unavailable) compounds at moderate soil pH and phosphate concentrations. For this reason, iron is often administered as a chelate complex, e.g., the EDTA derivative. The micronutrient needs depend on the plant. For example, sugar beets appear to require boron, and legumes require cobalt.[9]

Nitrogen fertilizers are made from ammonia (NH3), which is sometimes injected into the ground directly. The ammonia is produced by the Haber-Bosch process.[5] In this energy-intensive process, natural gas (CH4) usually supplies the hydrogen, and the nitrogen (N2) is derived from the air. This ammonia is used as a feedstock for all other nitrogen fertilizers, such as anhydrous ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) and urea (CO(NH2)2).

Deposits of sodium nitrate (NaNO3) (Chilean saltpeter) are also found in the Atacama desert in Chile and was one of the original (1830) nitrogen-rich fertilizers used.[12] It is still mined for fertilizer.[13]

There has been technical work investigating on-site (on-farm) synthesis of nitrate fertilizer using solar photovoltaic power, which would enable farmers more control in soil fertility, while using far less surface area than conventional organic farming for nitrogen fertilizer.[14]

All phosphate fertilizers are obtained by extraction from minerals containing the anion PO43−. In rare cases, fields are treated with the crushed mineral, but most often more soluble salts are produced by chemical treatment of phosphate minerals. The most popular phosphate-containing minerals are referred to collectively as phosphate rock. The main minerals are fluorapatite Ca5(PO4)3F (CFA) and hydroxyapatite Ca5(PO4)3OH. These minerals are converted to water-soluble phosphate salts by treatment with sulfuric or phosphoric acids. The large production of sulfuric acid as an industrial chemical is primarily due to its use as cheap acid in processing phosphate rock into phosphate fertilizer. The global primary uses for both sulfur and phosphorus compounds relate to this basic process.

In the nitrophosphate process or Odda process (invented in 1927), phosphate rock with up to a 20% phosphorus (P) content is dissolved with nitric acid (HNO3) to produce a mixture of phosphoric acid (H3PO4) and calcium nitrate (Ca(NO3)2). This mixture can be combined with a potassium fertilizer to produce a compound fertilizer with the three macronutrients N, P and K in easily dissolved form.[15]





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