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South Africa’s Ammonia Ambitions

In Nelson Mandela Bay, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, thousands of hectares of land could one day become the world’s largest green ammonia plant. Ammonia, which is made up of nitrogen and hydrogen, is commonly used as a fertilizer. In the early 1910s scientists devised a way to synthesize it, but before then, the main agricultural fertilizer was guano, bat or bird excrement, which had to be obtained from tropical islands and was in short supply. Production of ammonia at an industrial scale allowed agriculture to boom, and according to a study from the University of Manitoba, without it, we wouldn’t be able to produce roughly half of the world’s food today. Ammonia is also used to manufacture explosives for the mining industry and is a key ingredient in many pharmaceutical and cleaning products. Projected to start operations in 2026, the plant will cost $4.6 billion. It will be powered by a nearby solar farm and will get its water — of which vast amounts are needed to make ammonia — from a local table salt factory that desalinates seawater.