Are Synthetic Fertilizers Really Petroleum Based?


How many times have you heard the phrase petroleum based fertilizer? I’ve heard it so many times that I’ve used the phrase myself without even questioning it, just assuming it was correct. But are synthetic fertilizers really petroleum based? Are they actually made from petrochemicals? A fertilizer buying guide in National Geographic says “conventional fertilizers are commonly derived from petroleum”. It even claims a 40 lb bag of fertilizer contains the equivalent of 2 ½ gallons of gasoline. An ad for an organic gardening product goes even further and compares the use of synthetic fertilizers to pouring oil directly onto the soil. This over the top comparison raised a red flag for me and prompted me to dig deeper into this issue. Before going further, I want to clarify that my intention here is NOT to minimize the downsides of synthetic fertilizers. There are many. I also don’t intend to minimize the fact that our food system is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Rather, I simply want to ensure that my use and advocacy of organic practices are based on facts. Relying on half-truths and myths to promote organic gardening will only hurt the cause in the long run. So, to answer the question “are synthetic fertilizers really made from petroleum”, let’s take a look at how the N, P, and K in fertilizers are derived and see if any of them come from petroleum. Nitrogen in synthetic fertilizer is harnessed from the air using the Haber-Bosch process, which is a man-made nitrogen fixing process. It takes atmospheric nitrogen gas, which is not bio-available, and converts it into a bio-available form through a reaction with hydrogen gas. The resulting bio-available form is ammonia, or NH3. Ammonia is then used to make a variety of other fertilizers. So, are the nitrogen or hydrogen in NH3 derived from petroleum? The nitrogen comes from the air, which is 78% nitrogen. The hydrogen usually comes from methane, which is derived from natural gas. Neither comes from petroleum. So, it’s not accurate to say nitrogen fertilizers are petroleum based, but it is true that the hydrogen in ammonia comes from another fossil fuel – natural gas. However, I would definitely NOT take it a step further and compare the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to pouring liquefied natural gas on my garden soil. It’s really nothing like that. Even though the hydrogen comes from natural gas, the resulting ammonia (NH3) is the same as if the hydrogen had come from a different process, like the electrolysis of water. Okay, let’s move on to phosphorus. The phosphorus in synthetic fertilizers almost always comes from mined phosphorus rock, which is the same source used in many organic fertilizers. However, to make the phosphorus plant available, the rock phosphate is then reacted with other chemicals like ammonia to produce fertilizers such as diammonium and monoammonium phosphate. These fertilizers bring together the nitrogen from the Haber-Bosch process and the phosphorus from rock phosphate. So, the phosphorus in synthetic fertilizers does not come from petroleum. It comes from phosphorus rock. What about potassium? Does it come from petroleum? No it doesn’t. The potassium in synthetic fertilizers is mined from salts that were left behind after the drying of ancient oceans. So, the N, P, and K in synthetic fertilizers don’t come from petroleum. Nitrogen comes from the air, phosphorus comes from phosphorus rock, and potassium comes from the remains of ancient oceans. However, the hydrogen in ammonia produced by the Haber-Bosch process does typically come from another fossil fuel – natural gas. As I mentioned earlier, my intention here is not to defend synthetic fertilizers or minimize how dependent our food system is on fossil fuels. I simply want to do my best to separate fact from fiction so that when I advocate for organic gardening practices I know I’m standing on solid ground. In the upcoming weeks, I hope to release another video about why I prefer organic gardening practices over the use of synthetic fertilizers. Well, that’s all for now. Thank you very much for watching, and until next time remember you can change the world one yard at a time.

99 thoughts on “Are Synthetic Fertilizers Really Petroleum Based?

  1. Very interesting! I consider our food supply to be practically completely dependent on fossil fuels (if you consider most grocery stores carry only enough of a food supply to feed a community for 5 days).  I LOVE my grocery stores, but it can be scary when you think about how dependent the distribution of food is on transportation.  Also, during your research, did you happen to stumble on any information about the by-products of fertilizer manufacturing, like Fluoride?

  2. Interesting… Do you think that advocates who say these fertilizers are petroleum based are coming from the angle of how much fossil fuels it takes to harvest/create these synthetic fertilizers?

  3. Excellent video as usual Patrick thank you very much. I believe the saying about petrochemicals sprouts from the post war use of chemical fertilizers in agriculture and in gardens and lawns nationwide. I believe as you do that the organic and natural approach is best. We sometimes associate chemical uses as extravagant when we hear that people are freezing to death in the winter time and suffering from heat stroke in the summer time because of the incredible cost of fossil fuels for those purposes. If we as gardeners can convince people to use natural methods on their yards there shrubs their gardens and eventually on large-scale food production we may prevail in reducing the amount of fossil fuels used for these purposes. Looking forward to your next video thank you so much.

  4. Very interesting.  Of course, huge amounts of petroleum are probably used during manufacturing, certainly transportation. I'm guessing it takes grotesque amounts of energy to a.) harvest the natural gas and b.) force the chemical extraction of Nitrogen from the air and c.) force the extraction of Hydrogen from the gas and d.) force the creation of Ammonia from the N/H.  Also, what chemicals are used during the extraction/bonding of the H and N?  Are there waste byproducts from the process?

    I guess the question should be, do manufacturing practices of organic fertilizers have any less of a negative impact?

  5. Natural gas is a fossil fuel in a gaseous form rather than a liquid form. This process also requires heat and pressure which requires more fossil fuels. But in the end, or I should say the beginning, all that stored energy in fossil fuels came from the sun. The earth is one big hydrocarbon battery that is quickly being drained. When all the natural gas is gone we will just get our hydrogen from water and the sun's energy… in the meantime it is gonna get pretty hot.

  6. I really feel like this is a bastardization of what everyone is commenting about. The amount of fuel it takes to run an ammonia synthesis plant is insane. A large operation typically requires several motors equivalent to jet engines to supply the compression necessary. That amount of energy may not be equivalent to pouring gasoline on a field, but it definitely is akin to taking a bottle to that field and lighting it on fire.

  7. Thank you , fertilizers are petroleum based to some extent as they are manufactured and delivered by petroleum based Machinery trucks airplanes excetra . What prompted you to make this particular video ?and by the way thank you very much I could see you got a good heart and you're looking at all of our future ,

    I have a free source for bat guano and I also have my worm casting bin and compost,tho occasionally I will cheat and will you a semi synthetic fertilizer very much diluted if my vegetable garden is showing signs of any deficiencies…
    Can't wait till your next video dude!! 🙂 by the way the guano dramatically increased the flavor and sweetness of my tomatoes although it did not too much for my pickling cucumbers..:-)

  8. I appreciate your objective look on the source of synthetic fertilizers. I question the salt build up in soil, when used properly, as well as the assumption that synthetics directly kill microbes vs simply not feeding them. It seems that organic matter with synthetics would be a balanced approach. However, I do have a bias, as I used some blue liquid in my garden just this afternoon! I've also questioned whether or not shipping organic fertilizers such as seaweed and fish emulsions to the heartland, from either cost, is actually environmentally sound.  To be truly environmentally sound, all gardeners would need to take your approach.  -Eric

  9. Thanks for the informative video.
    Been thinking I might start using more synthetic fertiliser to supplement whatever free organic fertilisers I can get.
    Comparing purchased fertilisers by unit cost of NPK, synthetic seem to be much cheaper,
    and also maybe easier supply a crops exact nutritional requirement.

  10. I really enjoy your video.I was told that synthetic fertilizers contained salt which would kill microbes and fungi that would render soil infertile. would you have any insight to that claim?

  11. You totally debunked that myth! Now my question is: Do those fertilizers cause a salt buildup or burn the soil rendering it depleted of all natural growing ability? I've heard it does, but really don't know.

  12. Fantastic! Great, rational video. Looking forward to your next video on the topic. Organic is renewable. Synthetic is not. That seems to be the overall problem with our mass industrial food production.

  13. So why did the fertilizer plant explode in Waco, Texas a couple of years back ?  Synthetic fertilizer is explosive.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ROrpKx3aIjA

  14. I was curious how much energy is embodied in nitrogen fertilizer, so I had a quick look around.  Several sources, including one below, say it typically takes 34-35 mmBTU of natural gas to produce one ton of anhydrous ammonia.  Synthetic N fertilizers are either used in that form, or anhydrous ammonia is further processed into urea or other products.  N application rates for corn are estimated to be between 150 and 200 lbs per acre per year for central Illinois, a fairly typical slice of the corn belt.  So that works out to about 2.6 to 3.5 mmBTU of energy in the form of natural gas per acre per year.  For comparison, that's the energy equivalent of between 23 and 31 gallons of gasoline.

    Iowa State extension estimate of natural gas use for N fertilizer:
    http://www.ipm.iastate.edu/ipm/icm/2003/4-14-2003/natgasn.html

    Iowa State N application rate calculator for corn:
    http://extension.agron.iastate.edu/soilfertility/nrate.aspx

  15. I've always been under the impression that they were figuratively made of oil, due to the large amount of energy necessary for the Haber-Bosch Process. But I can see were people would see it as actually made of oil.

  16.  I have wondered about the statement that it is oil based. Thanks for taking the time to research and share that. I to prefer the organic route in my soil garden. 

  17. Thank you for going over this complex chemistry. I'm going to start calling you the "Myth Buster" gardener. You're doing a great job. I hope you write to National Geographic.

    I'm going to have an interesting year of gardening. Because of high phosphorus levels in my soil test, I've been advised to add absolutely no fertilizers nor compost this year (evidently compost adds phosphorus). The only thing I need to add is straw or wood mulch and N-only fertilizer if my plant leaves look pale green. Plus, experts are currently say not to till or hoe. Just plant, mulch, and water!

  18. Excellent video my friend ! Even though it's been years since I have used synthetic fertilizers it's good to know where they come from. This information is valuable because it lets us understand both why we garden organically and what the science is behind the methods we chose not to use.

    I tip my hat to you. An organic gardener taking the time to bust a myth for a practice you don't advocate for. You are a true person of science !

  19. Good info, Patrick, but now I have to challenge you. Considering that you like to quantify different aspects of your gardening practices, I'm wondering what amount of petroleum products are consumed in collecting/producing your favorite fertilizer ingredients; worm droppings, grass clippings, leaves, coffee grounds, brewery grains, egg shells, etc.?
    I only pose this question since I have considered this within the framework of my own gardening practices. Collecting free resources for composting would seem to lower our carbon footprint considerably. Don't expect you to make a video on this – it's just food for thought.

  20. Can't wait to hear more, I wonder how many other myths I just believed because I thought the source was reputable.

  21. I highly respect you for making this video so that all of your viewers can be confident in the integrity of your word.

  22. Extremely interesting video which keeps people fully informed of the facts.  But what you don't explain in this video (though you will I am sure  in the future ones) is to quantify the high fossil fuel energy consumption that goes into the entire manufacturing and transportation process for synthetic fertiliser.  (The mining and transportation of potassium and phosphates, plus the industrial processes of nitrogen fixation, plus the transportation of the product around the world).  Compare that with compost created in your back yard with locally available materials.

  23. Good video. I like the approach of using solid, scientific facts about conventional agriculture practices to make people understand them better, instead of using cheap scare tactics. I think that the scare tactics approach is also overused with GMO, and even though I don't support GMO based agriculture I can't deny that offten anti-GMO activists scare people with Frankenstine monster scenarios out of a 80's B movie horror. And ploughing which is probably the most destructive agriculture practice created gets no attention because there is no scare scenario to it, only scientific evidence of its destructive effect on the soil.

  24. Very informative segment! It's like that grade school game of "Telephone" where what you tell the first  becomes something completely different by the time it's told to the last. No doubt the first usage of "petroleum-based fertilizer" was predicated on the facts, perhaps about usage of oil in its manufacture, but by the time it got to the end, we end up with "we've got 2.5 gallons of gasoline" in synthetic fertilizers. I wouldn't be surprised if unknowledgeable folk conflated the "petrochemical industry," in which the natural gas industry exists, with "petroleum" or the gas part of natural gas with gasoline. Again, very informative!

  25. I remember finding out about the HB process when looking into bio nitrogen fixation. Apparently there were only 3 major types, the other 2 being lightning and the nitrogen fixing bacteria we know and love. I never bothered finding out about the P & K. Thanks for the info Patrick, I bet there's a few organic gardeners out there cursing you right now 😉 You're right though, misinformation is as undesirable as tri-elemental gardening.

  26. Thank you Patrick!!!!!  
    It doesn't mean I'll buy fertiliser (why would I when I can make it free?!), but I'd rather know my choices aren't based on fiction. 

  27. Excellent research, Patrick! I know some folks may not agree with some of my gardening methods, since I do sometimes use synthetic fertilizers, as well as compost, and organic fertilizers, but the plants do not know the difference, and as of now, it's available. That's not to say that we all should not be practicing sustainable organic methods, it's just that there are other means that exist for people that want to garden, but don't have the means to create their own compost's, and organic fertilizers. Thank you for your great work on pointing this out to the unknowing!

  28. Thank you, interesting info. I thought the problem with non- organic fertilizer is that it only gives you N P K and lacks the myriad other nutrients your garden needs. Just like taking vitamin supplements vs. whole foods.

  29. You are doing some excellent work there, and I really appreciate you sharing the results of your research.  The strange thing is that I am actually starting to understand it, so progress is being made.  Many thanks and all the best.

  30. First it was 'rock dust reduces your yield' now it's 'fertiliser is not made from petroleum'. Next it will be 'cover crops cause soil erosion'. Are there any more holy cows you want to demolish? Funnily enough I have just had a minor disagreement over the matter of sustainable manufacture of nitrogen using renewable energy.

  31. Well I learnt a lot from this video Patrick thank you very much for doing all the research into where the NPK come from in synthetic fertilisers! Have a great day

  32. So using synthetic fertilizer isn't like pouring oil on your garden, it's like pouring modified liquid natural gas on it.

    Nice. I'll still stick with the compost.

  33. Thanks Patrick for this informative video.

    Referring to an interview I listened to few days ago on "High Performance Agricultural" made by Dr. Mercola with his guest John Kempf, am quoting this from the interview:

    "Plants require far greater diversity of minerals than that provided in any commercial fertilizer formula. For example, NPK fertilizers contain varied amounts of just three components: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash. As mentioned earlier, plants need at least 64 different minerals and trace-minerals for optimal growth.

    While many soluble NPK-type fertilizers produce rapid, noticeable plant response, they significantly suppress the soil microbial community because they’re essentially electrolytes, and when applied to the soil, they increase the electrical conductivity of that soil, which results in a burnout and a suppression of the soil microbial community. So, long-term, this simply promotes soil destruction and decreases your ability to grow healthy plants."

    And here are the links to it,
    http://youtu.be/MQDbkSn9rpo

    Also this is the summary of it
    http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2013/09/22/high-performance-agriculture.aspx

  34. Actually, natural gas is a petroleum product.  It's methane, CH4; calling it natural gas is just greenwashing so that people will agree to pipe it into their homes instead of propane – "see, it's natural, hehheh"). The term petroleum is most often used to refer to the liquid portion of a hydrocarbon reserve, but it's often all mixed in there together in varying proportions.  Now I do agree that it being broken up into its elemental components (thus having completely different chemical properties), then using it as an ingredient, does not make the final batch of fertilizer akin to pouring gasoline on your garden, that's umm… what do you call anti-greenwashing? hogwashing?

    Now that I've disagreed on semantics, there's so much that I do agree on.  Yes, anyone arguing against synthetics (or anything) should know the facts and present them in a straightforward and non-misleading way.  I find the breakdown very informative.  Kudos to you, sir.  I would also agree that any kind of reduction of use of petroleum products is useful, and that naturally-derived fertilizers are the best for any gardener, especially those than can be obtained locally and by reducing waste.  Why go out any buy a negligibly-renewal resource when you can turn garbage into a productive garden for little to no $ and only a little sweat?  Heh, why pay for a gym membership when you could be turning compost?

  35. Interesting, I actually really surprised, but glad to know that conventional fertilizes are not as bad as most people say or think. 

  36. The video makes me want to consider using synthetic fertilizers, I'll be looking forward to seeing the "downsides" of using them.  My rule is to promote worms, when worms are happy, plants are happy, and worms like organic.

  37. I wonder where this idea came from. Is it possible that the amount of fossil fuels used in the manufacturing process account for this concept? Honestly a lot of the good stuff that  can be used on the garden as fertilizer is not only more cost effective but does not require any sort of manufacturing process at all. Good video. Thanks for posting it. 

  38. Patrick,
    Had to watch this twice to get the glaze off my mind.  Now that the glaze is off I have a couple questions.  Do synthetic fertilizers kill worms readily? Also does the chlorine in processed water kill fungi in the soil?
    Thanks for your research, it is always a pleasure to watch your channel.  Good job.
    Steve

  39. Interesting video, thanks!

    I like the idea of organic practices in the in-ground garden – it just makes sense to me.  But, I don't worry about it with potted plants.

  40. I like the store bought for emergency use. The problem with man made is the acid used to get phosphate out of the rock form. Not to mention all that mining (non renewable). Potash is a huge industry in our neighboring province of Saskatchewan I'm sure you will have a nice summary on upcoming episode. Petroleum based… lol.

  41. If I'm not mistaken, the Occidental fertilizer co. here in Fl releases tons of mercury into the watersheds as a result of rock phosphate mining.

  42. Patrick, I really appreciate your scientific approach and critical thinking when addressing these gardening questions and buzz word packed fads.  Your channel has helped make me, a backyard gardener, develop informed opinions and evolve my current practices.  Thank you and please keep the videos coming!  Also. I dig the intro you composed and play.  Nice cameo on the 6 string!

  43. Excellent analysis of another myth. I'm organic in my practices but very careful when making claims. My credibility is very important to me. I think many love hearing the negatives when they're against something and easily perpetuate the myths/lies.

  44. We hear a lot about peak oil, but rarely about peak phosphorus among other things we are mining and depleting!!! We also rarely consider how much energy is required to produce or mine, refine, ship…
    You're on the right path Patrick, keep informing people!

  45. I use and suggest using chemical fertilizers as medicine and not a routine. 99 percent of chemical fertilizers though are cheap trash.

  46. Excellent. The quest for accuracy rather than hearsay.  You are a rare person, or, have been trained in the sciences.  Much thanks for your thought provoking video's and the time you give to them.   

  47. Thanks for the clarification. This is also why I listen and think so highly of your practices. You let us know the truth. I also use or  make  most of my fertilizer from compost.

  48. Thank you for sharing the facts. I'm a soil scientist and I'm glad that you are educating people on the facts. I love your videos.

  49. you must take into account that  world ammonia production alone takes 2% of all the worlds energy usage. of which oil is more than a quarter.

  50. the original meaning of like pouring oil into the ground always referred to the fact how much fossil fuel is wasted for fertilizer production.  Cleverly twisted  to detract attention from how unsustainable it is and its dependants on tech companies.

  51. Dear Patrick,

    I have discovered some evidence that supports that pesticides contain petroleum. Unfortunately, additives such as crop oil are used to increase the efficacy. This oil, while sometimes petroleum based can also be sourced from soybean and cotton oil, however, petroleum is preferable because it works better to aid the pesticide in spreading across the leaf surface. blegh.

    The reason I felt the need to get to the bottom of this is because after reading the books "natural capitalism" and "biomimicry" I had somehow acquired a lingering factoid that petrochemicals were used in agriculture. I was recently asked to check my sources but there was not an explanation in "natural capitalism". So I dug deeper. I found information about crop oil in these sources.

    Thank you.

    http://www.weeds.iastate.edu/mgmt/qtr98-2/cropoils.htm

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crop_oil

    https://books.google.com/books?id=ylFbOKD5p5MC&pg=PA345&lpg=PA345&dq=are+agrichemicals+petroleum+based?&source=bl&ots=Wgt7Vj9tH4&sig=1YIQwKvklRLifD_h5aHtCtxR-hA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CEQQ6AEwB2oVChMIqKm3sLH1xwIVSFGICh1XrQ6L#v=onepage&q=are%20agrichemicals%20petroleum%20based%3F&f=false

    This last resource seems to suggest that these "surfactants" may also be used in spray fertilizers which (assumption) may be more commonly used in agriculture.

    http://extension.psu.edu/pests/weeds/control/adjuvants-for-enhancing-herbicide-performance

  52. Good video. I would just like to add that in the making of nitrogen, that between 1 and 2% of all energy made on the planet is used in this process. This is from a presentation given by Dr, Tom Dykstra of Dykstra labs in Florida. Also, as there is minimal "petroleum" used in the making of fertilizers, there is an astronomical amount of energy used to mine, process, and transport the fertilizers.

  53. Thanks for taking your analysis based on science and research–great video. A couple questions, though: Obviously, synthetic fertilizers aren't like pouring gasoline on the ground, but how much energy (likely from fossil fuels) does it take to separate pure nitrogen gas from air, and to pull hydrogen gas out of methane? More "petroleum" (fossil fuel) goes into nitrogen fertilizer than just the methane used in the reaction to produce the ammonia.

  54. My other comment is about environmental impact: Synthetic fertilizers are highly concentrated and tend to run off into streams and lakes. Raising the nitrogen and phosphate concentration in these normally balanced ecosystems can have devastating consequences. Perhaps these factors are part of your video about why you prefer organic?…I will queue that one up next, if I can find it.

  55. Ah! I see that you addressed all of my questions excellently in your "Why We Don't Use Synthetic Fertilizers" video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxTHZ-hC9I0). Outstanding facts and research!

  56. I mean, you aren't technically wrong. But the process to create the synthetic fertilizer is very energy intensive, and that energy will generally come from oil, coal, or natural gas right now. The estimate is that upwards of 2% of the world's energy is used to produce synthetic fertilizer. I don't think you're doing anyone any favors by not mentioning that. That's like saying electricity doesn't actually come from fossil fuels, because it's really just steam from superheated water turning a turbine and the fossil fuels only supply the heat for the process. Technically true, but kind of missing the point. Fossil fuels are consumed in the production of synthetic fertilizer, whether the elements found in those fossil fuels are the ones that continue on into the fertilizer or not.

  57. http://ietd.iipnetwork.org/content/ammonia#key-data suggests oil [& coal] is feedstock for fertiliser in Korea, China, India, Germany, France, Italy & even the USA. And yes the figures in the article's table may now be changed especially with the energy saving of around 25% in using gas cf oil.

  58. Hmm… Gasoline oil is energy.. So basically fertilizers are just refined energy source… This all makes sense to me now… Plants basically just need energy to grow and the carbon and minerals as for the building material.. Holy monkey Kong!!! I've been trying to grow my 100 percent organic veggies and they seem to be a bit sad! Organic fertilizer and doing my own compost is not enough at the moment so I am thinking of giving them some commercial fertilizer- so I guess this is ok in minimum amount… Pesticides is a big NO to me! So my BiGGEST question is what are the process of making the commercial fertilizer and do they involved other bad chemicals in cooking from gasoline oil to become fertilizer?? Help please???

  59. for whatever reason i always assumed it was "petroleum based" because all of the collection of the whale bones or rock was done by machines that run off gasoline. Not that it was literally made from oil. Guess it means different things to different people.

  60. Great Vid & Great topic. The clarifications were clear and easy to understand yet detailed and fact based. Really appreciate the effort. Thanks.

  61. Thanks for this. I use organic fertilizers for the most part, but I also have used synthetic on my lawn. Recently, I mentioned this to someone who reacted with surprising scorn. I thought I would look to you tube for a rational look at the facts. Good information.

  62. Natural gas and crude oil are both petroleum products. Everything up for discussion except except potassium contains hydrogen, which is normally derived from natural gas.
    Nitrogen – 2 NH3
    Ammonium nitrate – NH4 NO3
    Mono ammonium phosphate – NH4 H2PO4
    Di ammonium phosphate – 2NH4 H2PO4

    Potassium sulfate – K2SO4
    Potassium nitrate – KNO3

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