Can Nanoparticles take the place of synthetic fertilizers?

in StemSociallast year

Despite tons of efforts and resources invested into research seeking to better the existence of mankind, one major thing keeps eluding us, inadequate food. According to Food and Agricultural Organization, millions of people keep suffering from hunger. While the problem of hunger can partly be attributed to the wastage of food, on one hand, inadequate food production can be blamed on the other.

According to worldometer, the world's population keeps increasing at the rate of 1.05% per year, culminating in net average addition of 81 million people annually. The implication is that all hands have to be on deck in terms of food production, otherwise, the world's food crises may worsen.

Much has been done to improve food production, in all honesty. Advancement in technological innovation now makes it easy to practice agriculture. Cultivating lands, planting, weeding, fertilizer application, pesticide application, harvesting, processing of harvested produce, etc., are now as simple as the press of a button. Virtually every agricultural activities now have automation.

Despite all the automation and improved productivity through the use of machines, one thing remains limiting, and that is the essential nutrients for crop production. Trying to overcome this challenge has led to the emergence of synthetic fertilizers to augment the nutrients in the soil where they are inadequate. Although fertilizer application seems to work like magic, there are several problems associated with its usage.

One of the major problems associated with the use of synthetic fertilizer to boost crop production is its detrimental effects on the ecosystem at large. Runoffs from farmlands where synthetic fertilizers have been used usually cause an ecological problem known as eutrophication in aquatic ecosystems.


Image credit: FAOAmericas on flicker

The runoffs from farmland where synthetic fertilizers are being used contain residual nutrients. These nutrients cause the water bodies where runoffs are discharged to become enriched. The enrichment sparks the blooming of aquatic plants, causing underwater species to die off from inadequate light and oxygen. On one hand, the blooming of aquatic species creates problems in waterway navigation by boats, and on the other hand, the decrease in oxygen levels of water bodies triggers the death of aquatic animals. Decaying aquatic species in eutrophicated waters gives the water bodies a bad aesthetic appearance as well as obnoxious odours.

Apart from causing enrichment of aquatic environment, excessive use of fertilizers also has the capacity to cause disequilibrium in the natural nutrient supply in soils thereby rendering soils unsuitable for farming in the long run.

In the continuous effort to find a lasting solution to the problems associated with the use of synthetic fertilizers, scientists have delved into the world of nanoparticles. I first came across the use of nanoparticles in boosting crop output from the research of a colleague. The research, although yet to be published, investigated the effects of silver nanoparticle application on the yield of Chorchorus olitorus, also known as jews mallow.

What he did was to set up two groups of C. olitorus plants in the screen house under the same growth condition except that the treatment group had silver nanoparticles applied to them. Data on growth and eventual yield were collected from about 8 weeks and one-way analysis of variance of the data showed that the treatment group had significantly higher growth and yield than the control group.

The findings from my colleague's research piqued my interest in the subject and further investigation showed that the application of nanoparticles in crop production is a practice that is gaining traction, especially in the advanced world.

Nanotechnology is now being used in the production of fertilizers themselves. Nanoparticles in fertilizers not only improve crop productivity but can also be used to regulate the delivery of nutrients as well as the target sites of these deliveries (using biosensors). By doing so, excessive use of fertilizers can be curtailed and the ecological impact reduced to the barest minimum.

According to Mikkelsen (2018), nanofertilizers, as they are favouritely called, are classified into 3 based on the position of the nanoparticles in the fertilizer. They are

  1. Nanoscale fertilizers
  2. Nanoscale coating fertilizers
  3. Nanoscale additive fertilizers

Except for the nanoscale fertilizers that are essentially made of nanoparticles mixed with some essential crop nutrients, the rest are more or less normal synthetic fertilizers mixed with (nanoscale additive) or coated (nanoscale coating) with nanoparticles.

While the subject of nanoparticles and improving crop yields remains an active area of research investigations, excluding traditional fertilizers from future innovations targeting improved crop yield may be very important for the integrity of our ecosystems. Hopefully, element-specific nanoparticles can replace traditional fertilizers totally in the nearest future. Not just that, an innovation for the controlled release of the nutrients would be very essential.

Your comments and contributions are welcomed. Thank you all for reading.


Mikkelsen, R. (2018). Nanofertilizer and Nanotechnology: a quick look. Better Crops 102, 18–19. doi:10.24047/BC102318


While the problem of hunger can partly be attributed to the wastage of food, on one hand, inadequate food production can be blamed on the other.

What do you know of that is being done about wastage of food.

I am sure much goes to waste due to inadequate storage or ways of keeping it fresh. Long shipments across the seas and such probably make for much waste of foods and force flying of food which may increase prices to where many cannot afford it.

Actually, the food wastage I made reference to is those associated with individuals or households. While some wastage still occur as a result of logistics of agricultural produce, a lot is been done to reduce it to the barest minimum.

To know more about food wastage, here is an excerpt:

While the world wastes about 1.4 billion tons of food every year, the United States discards more food than any other country in the world: nearly 40 million tons — 80 billion pounds — every year. That’s estimated to be 30-40 percent of the entire US food supply, and equates to 219 pounds of waste per person. That’s like every person in America throwing more than 650 averagesized apples right into the garbage — or rather right into landfills, as most discarded food ends up there. In fact, food is the single largest component taking up space inside US landfills, making up 22 percent of municipal solid waste (MSW). source

I believe it. It is so sad. Yes, this is the type of waste I wish we could figure out how to stop or prevent too.

Yes, there should be away to curb the wastage, I think an improvement should be concentrated more on the transportation and shipment of food from a sufficient country to a needed country.

It ain't nanoparticles but I find general fertilizer to be lacking. I use a mixture of infinite (to me) materials in cycle, willow tea, leaf litter in big drums over winter, banana peel and potato peel.

I think long term the best scenario is s to use byproducts of the daily produce to fertilize.

I'm all for technology but nothing beats simple preparation and patience for me. But it's a damn interesting concept and it needs to be figured out by brains bigger than mine long term.

I agree that organic manures are actually the best both for production and for the health of the ecosystem. The problem is currently is a scalable method of producing organic manure. Perhaps we might get to that later, but the problem of food shortage cannot wait till then.

I am sceptical of nanoparticles. To be honest I am not full upon them but from my understanding, they are particles that change the system they are in. Personally, I think until we are 100% this could cause irreversible damage to the ecosystem. Maybe I'm wrong?

Yea, just like every new invention. It may take some time before the detrimental effects of the nanoparticles are uncovered themsekves. The ideal thing would be to go organic 100%

Yes, it does worry me. I aim to keep my garden as organic as I can never easy in this day and age

The final sentence of this post, "Not just that, an innovation for the controlled release of the nutrients would be very essential", is the most important one. We need to find a way to improve food production without missing up with the ecosystem around.

I didn't know about options coming from nanoscience. That's cool (but I guess quantitative studies are still needed)!

I might not have known about it too if not for my colleague's research. The ideal situation would be to go organic 100% as this is the only way to maximise food production with minimal disruption to the ecosystem.

Unfortunately, the world is far from being ideal... We all know that at our age... :(

They say we have about 60 years of topsoil left due to these farming practices.

One of the big ones for regenerative agriculture is covered soil - so green manure crops would be a better option than spray on fertiliser. Also, the concentration of NPK is daft - there's THOUSANDS more nutrients that soil needs, and one of the other things are bugs and bacteria which monoculture fertilisers totally disregard.

I think there's lots to be done in the world for more innovative fertilising - when I say innovative, I mean go and look at people like the Mayans who used humanure and biochar and had incredibly rich soils. That's where we need to head.

Great article.

Thank you @riverflows for the insightful comment. Organic farming is actually the best way to go but I think scalability might be an issue. Hopefully, we will be able to innovate to scale so as to mitigate the disruption to the ecosystem and destroy future heritage.

Well yes, because if we don't, any questions about scalability are redundant as we will all be dying of hunger.

You can actually get much higher yields than you imagine with regenerative ag. And more nutritious as well. High yield, giant and uniform crops are actually not good for us... We need to change how we think about the food we eat x

Many don't want to believe that engineered crops would have their downsides in the long run. Nature is mostly about trade offs, something must have been given for all those giant looking pawpaw.

Interesting write up. I just finished a grant proposal related to this few days ago.

Is it a personal one or you helped someone?

It's for a group

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Wonderful article, @gentleshaid. One of the things that jumps out at me as I read your description of aquatic blooms is that nothing can be done in isolation. Whatever method is found to increasing food production, the solution will have to be a lot more complicated than just increasing crop yield. It seems every time we find a solution, we create another problem

Thought-provoking blog.

Once read that nanoparticles could cause cardiopulmonary problems and general inflammatory response. They are generally capable of crossing the cell membranes, now I wonder how about the blood-brain barrier? can they cross that too? if they can, what will be the effect if toxic amounts end up crossing the BBB, thinking also of cerebrovascular accidents in relation nanotoxicity.