Like many of us on the east coast of Australia, I recently spent some time hosing out mud from inundated houses. Making conversation, one of my fellow mud-covered volunteer co-workers, an accountant, asked me what I did for a living. When I said I was a chemist, he didn’t seem all that impressed and so I found myself engaged in a conversation justifying the importance of the profession. Apart from feeling as though I was in some strange version of a Life of Brian scene about the value of the Romans, in some ways it also felt odd that the justification was even necessary. On reflection, I realised that defining what chemistry has done for us is a useful exercise to measure our worth as a profession and the contribution chemistry has made to society. A quick Google search reveals that apart from impacts on human health, chemistry has transformed our world through the invention of means to make batteries and plastics and ammonia. Members might agree or disagree with these answers, and indeed I was less convinced by the internet’s claims of the value of LCD screens. Email me your thoughts about the greatest impacts that chemistry has made on our lives, as I would love to know.
Clearly, the value of chemistry in our lives can depend on context, and there are downsides with battery chemicals and plastics, but there should be no contention as to the significance of our mastering the chemistry of ammonia manufacture and how significantly this has impacted on our world. The only way that the world can produce enough food to support current (and future) populations is because fertilisers, particularly ammonia, have been able to substantially increase crop yields. As the internet tells us, 80% of the nitrogen in our bodies comes from the industrial chemistry that converts nitrogen to ammonia. Ammonia can be directly injected into soil, or it can be converted into nitrates or urea and added in solution or solid forms. Urea is particularly important because it represents the most concentrated form of fertiliser and delivers the most nitrogen to the soil per application.
Over the last few months in Australia, we have also learned that urea is also critical to the way we transport our goods and even run our private vehicles. And we have discovered that we don’t have enough of it. Almost 90% of urea is used as fertiliser; however, solutions of urea are added to diesel engines to decrease NOx pollution, and without this additive many vehicles, particularly heavily vehicles, cannot run. The additive is generically known as DEF (diesel exhaust fluid). DEF makers import mostly from Russia and China, so due to pandemics, politics and war, supplies have recently become difficult.
Luckily, Australia still has one chemical manufacturing plant that makes urea, Incitec Pivot’s facility in Brisbane. This is the only plant of its type in Australia and thankfully it has been able to step up production. Urea is manufactured by reacting natural gas with water and atmospheric nitrogen to produce ammonia and carbon dioxide, which are then recombined to form H2NCONH2. Local costs, including that of natural gas, as well as the potential impact on Australia’s greenhouse emission targets makes economically viable local production challenging. However, even with the Brisbane plant at full production, Australia will probably not be self-sufficient in urea and a considerable quantity will need to be imported to supplement local production.
Russia is the number one exporter of fertiliser globally, and the European conflict has driven fertiliser prices to historical highs. Russia banned fertiliser exports to many countries and with Europe sourcing roughly 25% of its fertiliser needs from Russia, it could soon be a difficult time to source these valuable chemicals from anywhere in the world, let alone at a palatable price.
Since the pandemic, Australians have become all too aware of supply chain problems, but a report last year from the Productivity Commission claims there are few vulnerabilities in our supply chains, and these can be managed by ‘stockpiling’ and ‘diversification’ (bit.ly/3y7dy4k). Notably the report was written before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused further disruption to supply chains. Clearly, stockpiling can only work when there is a supply to be stockpiled. While the Australian Government appears to not be overly concerned about Australia’s lack of manufacturing capability, the report did mention certain ‘key’ chemicals and indicated that ‘Australia does not have the expertise or scale to produce them well or competitively … [and] … Australia could never be truly self-reliant’.
RACI members would probably think such statements reflect a limited understanding of the true capability of the chemistry profession and Australia’s chemical industry. The Productivity Commission, like my muddy accountant colleague and much of the public, struggles to understand the nature and the worth of chemistry. It is our responsibility wherever possible to try and rectify this. To attract intelligent, curious and capable people into our profession (and into the RACI!), we need to always be looking for opportunities to promote and improve chemistry’s ‘brand’. Wherever we can, we must also be able to convince others about matters that we, as chemists, already know – chemistry is a vital aspect of our daily lives that should not be ignored and understanding its importance in society and our economy leads to better decisions and outcomes that benefit us all.