Nano urea: The panacea for India’s urea dependence?

Nano urea, a product of nanotechnology, is revolutionizing agriculture by providing an innovative nitrogen source to plants. Positioned as an environmentally friendly solution, nano urea fertilisers align with smart chemical practices, contributing to efforts in mitigating climate change.

This revolutionary product has another critical implication for India when it comes to its trade balance. India is the world’s largest importer of urea with a value of US$ 7.1 billion in 2022. Domestic urea consumption is growing by around 6-7% annually. The government’s strategy to reduce these imports has been two-pronged – increase the production of urea domestically and enhance the usage of nano urea as an alternative.

However, limited research and environmental concerns emphasize the need for a balanced approach in its application. IBT discusses the potential and key debate surrounding nano urea in this article.

Image Credit : Pixabay

Every plant requires specific nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, for healthy growth. In cases where nature falls short in providing these essential elements, the need for effective fertilizers arises. Urea, with its high nitrogen content of approximately 46%, has been widely utilized in agriculture. Originally available as a white crystalline organic compound, urea has evolved in response to the changing agricultural and chemical industry landscape, leading to the development of nano urea.

Nano urea, as a revolutionary fertilizer born from nanotechnology, plays a crucial role in supplying plants with a sufficient amount of nitrogen. This sustainable option has become a cornerstone for farmers seeking enhanced crop yields while embracing smart agricultural practices. Although traditional urea is effective, it poses environmental challenges, especially when used excessively. Its high water solubility can lead to problems such as leaching, de-nitrification, and volatilization losses. In contrast, liquid nano urea is a chemical fertilizer, which ensures efficient absorption and penetration of nitrogen into the leaves when applied as a foliar spray. Therefore, it is able to effectively reach specific parts of the plant where needed. Furthermore, it releases nutrients in a controlled manner, thereby minimizing wastage and preventing environmental pollution.

The test run of nano fertilizer conducted by Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Limited (IFFCO) on various crops during different seasons across diverse regions in India has yielded promising results. The positive outcomes have translated into tangible benefits for farmers, with an average increase in crop yields ranging from 7-8%. This implies that the application of nano fertilizer, developed and tested by IFFCO, has proved to be effective in enhancing agricultural productivity and also giving a push to new technology in fertilizers.

India urea imports_TPCI

Source: DGCIS; figures in US$ billion for HS 310210

Nano urea has another critical implication for India when it comes to its trade balance. India is the world’s largest importer of urea with a value of US$ 7.1 billion in 2022. Domestic urea consumption is growing by around 6-7% annually. The annual fertiliser requirement is around 58-63 million tonnes while production is at 43-46 million tonnes. The high import bill also necessitates a significant allocation in the Union Budget to fertiliser subsidies.

The government’s strategy to reduce these imports has been two-pronged – increase the production of urea domestically and enhance the usage of nano urea as an alternative. According to the government’s own estimates, the production of 170 million bottles of nano urea could save around Rs 15,000-20,000 crore on fertiliser imports. In fact, the government is focused on rapidly ramping up nano urea production with an objective to achieve self-sufficiency in urea production by 2025.

Advantages of Nano Urea

Enhanced Nutrient Use Efficiency: Nano urea boasts higher availability to crops by over 80%, leading to a substantial increase in Nutrient Use Efficiency (NUE). This efficiency improvement is crucial for sustainable agriculture, allowing for better utilization of resources.

Environmental Footprint Reduction: Addressing environmental concerns, nano urea plays a pivotal role in minimizing nutrient loss from fields. Traditional fertilizers often contribute to issues like leaching and gaseous emissions, which degrade the environment. Nano urea’s controlled release mechanism helps mitigate these challenges.

4 R Nutrient Stewardship: Nano urea emerges as a key player in the 4 R nutrient stewardship, contributing to precision and sustainable chemical practices. This approach focuses on the Right source, Right rate, Right time, and Right place of nutrient application, optimizing resource use.

Clean and Green Technology: The industrial production of nano urea is both energy-efficient and resource-friendly, aligning with clean and green technology principles. This aspect enhances its appeal as an environmentally conscious agricultural input.

Contribution to Smart Agriculture: Nano urea aligns with the principles of smart agriculture by offering a targeted and efficient solution to plant nutrient requirements. Its application precision and effectiveness contribute to the overall advancement of modern farming practices.

Efficient Nitrogen and Phosphorus Source: Nano fertilizer serves as an efficient source of available nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P2O5) for various crops. It addresses deficiencies in standing crops and promotes healthier growth.

Nano DAP Formulation:  Unique formulation, with a particle size less than 100 nanometers, enhances its surface area to volume ratio. This property allows for easier penetration into seeds or through stomata and other plant openings, contributing to better assimilation.

Benefits for Crop Yield and Quality: Nano DAP, through seed treatment and foliar application at critical growth stages, increases nutrient availability to crops. This results in higher crop yields, improved seed vigor, more chlorophyll, and enhanced photosynthetic efficiency. Additionally, the quality of harvested produce, in terms of protein and nutrient content, is positively impacted.

Reduction in Chemical Fertilizer Usage: The use of Nano tech can potentially replace a significant portion of conventional DAP, leading to a reduction in chemical fertilizer usage. Its targeted application at critical growth stages minimizes the need for bulk fertilizers, contributing to sustainability.

Environmentally Friendly Production: Nano technology in fertilizers is energy and resource-friendly production processes align with environmental sustainability. The precision and targeted application further reduce soil, air, and water pollution, promoting agricultural practices that are safe for the environment.

Easy to Store and Transport: The requirement of Nano fertilizers is in smaller quantities compared to bulky phosphatic fertilizers simplifies logistics and warehousing. Farmers can easily handle and transport bottles of Nano DAP, contributing to practicality in agricultural operations.

Challenges Associated with Nano Urea

The Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Limited (IFFCO) has received government approval for the commercial use of ‘Nano Urea,’ a patented fertilizer, lauded  potential to reduce the import bill significantly. However, skepticism has arisen among experts regarding its scientific efficacy.

Nano Urea, developed by IFFCO, contains nitrogen in granules that are a 100000 times finer than a sheet of paper, utilizing nanotechnology. The inventor, Ramesh Raliya, claims that the use of “organic polymers” keeps the nano particles of nitrogen stable and in a form that can be sprayed onto plants.

While traditional urea is 46% nitrogen, Nano Urea, sold in 500 ml bottles, contains only 4% nitrogen. Some experts question how this lower concentration can compensate for the nitrogen requirements of crops, considering plants need nitrogen to make protein.
Critics argue that even if 100% of the 20 gm of Nano Urea is utilized by the plant, it would yield significantly less compared to traditional urea. Challenges such as the unclear impact of nano particles on plant activity and the necessity of further research are highlighted.
Raliya contends that nano particles stimulate enzymes in plants when applied to leaves, improving nitrogen metabolism. The increased surface area of nano particles relative to their volume enhances interaction and metabolism, resulting in improved plant responses.

Limited Research and Uncertainty: Despite the potential benefits, there is ongoing uncertainty about the actual impact of nano urea on crop production. Some scientists express reservations, emphasizing the need for more research to establish its effects comprehensively.

Environmental Concerns: Nano fertilizers, including Nano Urea, raise environmental concerns due to potential adverse effects on human health and the environment. The concentration of nanoparticles used is a significant consideration, as higher concentrations may pose risks.

Farmers’ Learning Curve: The adoption of Nano Urea requires farmers to adapt to a new technology, posing a potential learning curve. Familiarity with application techniques and usage guidelines is essential for optimal results.

Cost Considerations: While Nano Urea can reduce transportation and warehousing costs, the initial adoption costs and potential fluctuations in pricing may impact farmers’ budget considerations. A balance between benefits and economic viability is crucial.

Application Precision: Proper application of liquid Nano Urea demands precise techniques, and farmers need to follow specific guidelines to ensure optimal results. Factors such as dilution ratios, spraying practices, and timing play a crucial role in its effectiveness.

Optimal Application Practices for Nano Urea: Understanding the correct application of nano urea is essential for its effective use. Farmers are advised to dilute 2-4 ml of Nano Urea (4% N) in one liter of water and apply it as a foliar spray during active growth stages. Two foliar sprays are recommended, with the first during active tillering/branching and the second 20-25 days after the first spray or before crop flowering. The correct application ensures efficient absorption and penetration, maximizing the benefits of Nano Urea.

Striking a Balance for Sustainable Agriculture

Government’s efforts towards self sufficiency are already showing results in urea imports, which dropped by 51.6% YoY in 2023 to reach US$ 3.4 billion (DGCIS). In quantity terms, they have dropped by 21.3% YoY to reach 7.4 million tonnes, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights. Correspondingly, the country’s urea production has increased by 13.4% YoY to 31.11 million tonnes in the same year. India is projected to replace the consumption of 2.5 million tonnes (mt) of conventional urea with nano urea in FY24 according to union chemicals and fertilisers minister Mansukh Mandaviya.

Nano urea, with its promising benefits in agriculture such as improved nutrient efficiency and reduced environmental impact, is gaining attention in the chemical industry. This innovative solution aligns with the industry’s focus on sustainable practices. However, limited research and environmental concerns emphasize the need for a balanced approach in its application. Despite government approval based on observed yield benefits, experts within the chemical industry debate whether these gains are solely attributed to existing soil nitrogen. This debate suggests the necessity for conclusive research to scientifically validate nano urea’s efficacy, a crucial aspect for its acceptance in chemical agricultural practices.

Proponents within the chemical industry highlight the potential benefits of nano urea for farmers, emphasizing its role in enhancing crop yields and promoting sustainable agriculture. On the other hand, skeptics stress the importance of rigorous scientific validation, urging for a thorough understanding of its impact on plant nutrition and environmental factors.

Scientific scrutiny and continued research are deemed essential in the chemical industry to unlock the full potential of nano urea. This approach ensures that the product aligns with the industry’s commitment to sustainability and efficiency. As technology evolves, Nano urea stands out as an innovative solution that has the potential to transform traditional practices within the chemical agricultural sector, contributing to a more sustainable and efficient future for India.

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