Nigeria: How Urea Fertilizer From Corncob Can End Farmers' Nightmare

The federal government through the Raw Material Research Development Council (RMRDC) has begun a process for the development of furfural urea fertilizer that will not be lost rapidly in the soil as ordinary urea fertilizer.

The Council, in a document seen by Daily Trust, is collaborating with the Sheda Science and Technology Complex (SHESTCO) to develop the fertilizer said to be suitable for savanna soils in Nigeria.

Our Agric Editor reports that corncobs are important byproducts of the corn processing industry, which represent about 25% of the total weight of corn produced.

According to the document, the volume of the by-product generated from the corn production in Nigeria in 2018 was estimated to be 154,424 tons.

Worldwide, corncobs are either used as animal feed, returned to the harvested field, or used in landfills. It contains approximately 39.1% cellulose, 42.1% hemicellulose, 9.1% lignin, 1.7% protein, and 1.2% ash.

Experts believe that due to their chemical composition, corncobs show great potential as renewable raw material for producing a variety of added-value chemicals such as lactic acid, citric acid, sugars, and ethanol.

"In view of its properties, corncobs, like most agricultural waste biomass that contain pentosans, have found application in the production of furfural which is a clear, colorless motile liquid with a characteristic almond-benzaldehyde odor. Any material containing pentosans can be used for the production of furfural. Furfural, as well as its derivative furfuryl alcohol, can be used together with phenol, acetone, or urea to make solid resins," the document reads in part.

Why the new fertiliser may end farmers' nightmare

The Director-General of the RMRDC, Professor Ibrahim D. Hussaini, said corncobs have been hydrolysed with acids to produce furfural urea fertilizers which are slow release fertilizers with wide applications for savanna soils in Nigeria.

According to him, the soils of the Nigerian Guinea Savanna are predominantly Alfisol. These soils are inherently low in Organic Matter (OM), Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), deficient in Nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) and are largely coarse textured.

This low level of OM, he noted, has made the Savanna soil susceptible to major chemical, physical and biological limitations which reduce crop yields.

The soils, he added, are exposed to high temperature and the rainfall in the area is concentrated over a period of five months in a year.

He noted that prolonged use of chemical fertilizers, especially Nitrogen fertilizers gives rise to residual soil acidity and cation depletion. According to him, under intensive agriculture now commonly practiced in the savanna zone, soil fertility declines rapidly after a few years of continuous cultivation. The use of fertilizer is therefore a pre-requisite to increasing and maintaining crop yields in the savanna areas of Nigeria.

He said urea fertilizer is used to grow crops such as maize, wheat, rice, soya, tea plants among others around the world.

"The main advantages of the fertilizer are low cost per kilogramme of nutrient nitrogen, high nutrient density, ease of handling and good storage properties. However, when applied in soils in the relatively hot regions of Sub-Saharan Africa for example, the disadvantages of the fertilizer become exacerbated. These disadvantages are loss of nutrients in runoffs before the plants absorb them, loss of nitrogen as ammonia volatilized to the atmosphere and leaching of the readily soluble fertilizer beyond the region of the roots of the plants. These losses usually lead to multiple applications of the fertilizer to the crops within a planting season thus enhancing production cost," he said.

Experts believe that to mitigate the above disadvantages, several slow release nitrogen fertilizers have been proposed in the literature. These consist of urea coated in water-insoluble sulphur or polymers. The fertilizers are usually too expensive for application in general agriculture and have not been conclusively shown to increase crop yield.

Another objective, according to him, was to convert corn cob wastes to wealth and to reduce the need for landfills.

"The project envisaged the conversion of corncobs to useful chemical fertilizers and other industrial chemicals especially furfural. As a result of partial hydrolysis of corn cob, a condensate with urea was produced. The resultant fertilizers when tested have the advantage of gradual hydrolysis with the release of Nitrogen. The corn cob urea condensate permeates into the soil and forms a gel like composite with the soil," he revealed.

Field trial promising

The DG said after producing samples of furfural urea, the Council and SHESTSCO used it for field trials in the north-east and North-West parts of Nigeria, in collaboration with the Institute of Agricultural Research, Zaria and cereals farmers, to collect and record relevant data.

The trials, according to him, revealed that the hydroscopic nature of furfural urea increases its tendencies to bind together and that reduces its free flow rate.

"The furfural urea fertilizer releases NH4 + -N slowly compared to urea, thereby guaranteeing longer supply of Nitrogen than urea fertilizer.

The result also indicated that furfural urea fertilizer when applied behaved as a slow release nitrogen fertilizer. When applied in an appropriate single amount it is capable of slowly releasing the nitrogen to the crop throughout the planting season," he said.

He said that would reduce the amount of fertilizer required when compared to the multiple applications needed when using the conventional urea fertilizer.

"Furthermore, the production process of the slow release fertilizer is essentially a multiplication process as about twice the amount of the input conventional urea is obtained as the slow release nitrogen fertilizer. This implies more fertilizer would be available to farmers," he added.

He said that made the Council to commence commercialization process of the project.

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