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October 19, 2018

Advanced Potash Technologies: Solving the food crisis with a better fertilizer

Since 2011, Advanced Potash Technologies (APT) has focused on one mission – to address the food shortage problem.

Steve Calechman

Since 2011, Advanced Potash Technologies (APT) has focused on one mission – to address the food shortage problem. For this global goal, the Brazilian company took a top-down approach, says Philip Wender, APT’s managing director. With a growing worldwide population, the need for crops would only intensify, and, for many regions, the soil is sub-par and no commercial potassium fertilizer is affordable or accessible. The answer became clear: make a new version that took advantage of feldspar, an abundant source that is potassium-rich and can be found on any continent. Although this mineral had been considered in the past, it was the introduction of MIT technology that allowed for a low-temperature production pathway that resulted in a cost effective and chlorine-free fertilizer, which could be deployed all over the world. “Many farmers had limited access to fertilizers that were not ideal for their soils,” Wender says. “Now they can access a far more efficient and economic fertilizer to drive yields of their indigenous crops.”

Philip Wender,
Managing Director,
Advanced Potash Technologies

Taking advantage of local resources
APT’s roots are in Wender’s home country of Brazil, a place where agriculture is central. The soil, though, is often sandy and responds poorly to traditional fertilizer methods, a common problem in tropical regions that see heavy rainfall. Wender says that the problem will only intensify in the coming years as resources will be further stressed.

Specifically, worldwide population is expected to grow from the current 7.6 billion people to 9.8 billion in 2050. More food will have to be grown – and grown on a local level. Additionally, crops and grains will have to be produced to feed all the associated livestock in each country. The challenge is that although demand is expected to increase quickly, the availability of arable land is unlikely to keep pace. While there are a variety of solutions to consider, Wender says that by far the most impactful on crop yields is effective fertilization, ideally by a source that is domestic and scalable within the local economy.

As it stands, potash (KCl) is the industry standard potassium fertilizer, but it comes with a few problems, Wender says. While it contains potassium, it also has roughly 50 percent chloride by weight. Along with being sensitive to chloride, crops forced to ingest this highly soluble salt must do so all at once, otherwise risk losing all the potassium as it leaches away from the roots.

Potash is also geographically concentrated. Five countries, all developed economies in the northern hemisphere, control approximately 85 percent of its traded production. The complex importation of this nutrient, particularly to the south, makes it cost-prohibitive for many farmers. “There’s a big disconnect between where it’s needed and where it’s produced,” he says. In these locations, “the benefit of the fertilizer will not compensate the price that the farmer is paying.”

With this dilemma in mind, APT started with a simple question: Is there a way to produce potassium fertilizer in Brazil?

The answer was yes, given the country is rich in high potassium feldspar deposits. Unfortunately, the solution wasn’t as simple as gently milling the rocks, Wender says. The crystalline structure is rigid and plant roots wouldn’t be able to absorb the potassium. The trapped nutrient needed to be made available. The missing piece was the technology to do this.

At a 2012 conference, Wender met with members of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, who he says quickly understood the magnitude and impact of the project and wanted to be involved. After less than a year of sponsored research, the team at the Allanore Group proposed a low-temperature, hydrothermal pathway. Rather than extracting potassium out of a rock, this process disrupted the crystal structure enough to allow the plant’s roots to do the rest of the work. “Professor Antoine Allanore realized that plants have evolved for millions of years thanks to their abilities to extract nutrition from the ground,” Wender says. “Why not simply take advantage of this natural mechanism?”

The MIT research program is ongoing and has resulted in HydroPotash, a fertilizer with controlled potassium release and no chloride, making it applicable to any soil type. By operating at a lower temperature and for shorter times, Allanore’s approach also requires less energy, making APT’s production process scalable in ways that other methods could not be, Wender says. Simultaneously, APT is researching additional areas of potential value, including the remediation of heavy metals in soil, combining the product with growth-supporting bacteria, and mitigating run-off and volatilization losses in nitrogen fertilizers.

Adding to the benefits, feldspar is abundant throughout the world and is found on the earth’s surface, thereby avoiding deep underground mining as is required with potash. Since it’s simple and cost-effective, Wender says that the APT process can be pursued anywhere. Fertilizer can then be produced close to agricultural areas, making it accessible to farmers of all sizes and in all regions.

Given that feldspar has never had a previous economic value, its deposits have never been thoroughly mapped. One edge APT offers, Wender says, is that the company has deep geological expertise, and, with its in-house team of scientists, has created a proprietary method to identify worldwide deposits. At this point, the company owns 6 sites in Brazil, all near agricultural hubs, and is exploring sites in California, Missouri, Arkansas, and Australia.

The company has been able to produce its potash on a small scale, and has been working with a variety of companies and institutions, including the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) in the United States, Embrapa in Brazil, as well as some of the largest farming cooperatives and research centers in South America. The company has performed several greenhouse tests with different soil and crop types to demonstrate the superiority of HydroPotash, says Wender, adding that the company is working alongside a top tier Engineering, Procurement, and Construction (EPC) company to successfully scale up the technology. The plan is to have a pilot plant operating in 2019 that can produce a few thousand tons of fertilizer a year, with a full, industrial-scale plant planned for 2021.

Expanding its footprint up north
The initial partnership with MIT wasn’t a hard decision, Wender says. The university has a well-earned reputation for taking on big problems. “You can be sure they have a high-quality technology that stays focused on precisely what you’re looking to achieve,” he says. As the relationship has evolved, the company decided to establish its world headquarters and R&D facility right outside of Boston. This, combined with its well-established presence in Brazil, has given APT the perfect balance of product development and market engagement.

The company remains close to farmers and to where the product will be used. It also gets to stay near campus. It has hired MIT scientists, some of whom worked on the original project, and they come with not only a knowledge of the technology but also an expertise in an array of relevant industries. “The location is also known as an innovation hub. It’s a worldwide reference,” Wender says. “It encourages high-level conversations, and it attracts people who value impact and want to make a difference globally.”

About MIT Startup Exchange, STEX25, and MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP)
MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

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MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.