8 Uses of Nitrogen in Soil for Plants Growth (Nutrient Management)

Nitrogen is one of the most abundant chemical elements on Earth. It occupies group 15 on the periodic table and has N as its symbol. Scottish physician Daniel Rutherford was the first person who discovered and managed to isolate this chemical element. Jean-Antoine Chaptal, a French chemist, suggested the name nitrogen when found out that the element was present in nitric acid and nitrates. Nitrogen is the seventh most abundant in the Solar System. Thus, here are the uses of nitrogen in soil.

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Characteristics of nitrogen

Nitrogen is commonly found in gas form although it can be refrigerated or melted. This chemical elements has melting point of −210.00 °C and boiling point of −195.795 °C. It has atomic mass of 14.00674 u. Since nitrogen occupies group 15 on the periodic table, it is classified as one of pnictogens or nitrogen family. This group consists of nitrogen, phosphorus, arsenic, antimony, bismuth and synthetic element moscovium.

This group shares some similar traits. They all have five electrons on the exterior shell. Except nitrogen, pnictogens elements are solid in standard temperature. Nitrogen typically contains 7 protons and neutrons. Nitrogen is odorless and colorless in stable temperature. Two atoms of nitrogen often form a diatomic gas which is largely available in the Earth’s atmosphere. However, nitrogen is ranked four as the most abundant element in the human body.

There are various applications of nitrogen in everyday life. Many chemical compounds that contain this element are used for industrial purposes. Amonia or NH3 can be found in cleaning products and fertilizers while organic nitrates are common in explosives. In addition, a lot of industries have been using the allotropes of nitrogen for various functions.

Nitrogen is present in many forms in soils due to its biogeochemical cycle. The chemical element will always get converted during the cycle as it enters different ecosystems. Nitrogen plays an important role as a nutrient in soils. It is needed for photosynthesis in plants.

Nitrogen helps decomposers such as bacteria, worms, slugs and fungi to break down decaying organisms into smaller molecules. Some of these bacteria live in roots where they make ammonia for plants and supply them with carbohydrates. They do this by combining diatomic nitrogen with hydrogen gas with the aid from particular enzymes. But most living organisms find it hard to absorb nitrogen from the Earth’s atmosphere despite it being abundant in nature.

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Here are some facts about uses of nitrogen in soil:

  1. Nitrogen cycle

This chemical element can enter a particular ecosystem through two different ways. Since it is very abundant in the air atmosphere, the many forms of nitrogen are easily carried by natural occurrences such as rain or swept away by winds. The other way for nitrogen to enter a different ecosystem is through a series of chemical reaction with the help from microorganisms. This element is heavily influenced by the physical and chemical conditions of soils.

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  1. Nitrogen fixation

Nitrogen fixation happens when ammonia is produced diazotroph bacteria and archaea by combining nitrogen with hydrogen. They are able to do this because they possess an enzyme called nitrogenase enzyme. The outcome of this reaction will then be converted into different kinds of organic compounds. Nitrogen fixation is very important for plants as they use it for their growth. Moreover, this process also helps increase the amount of nitrogen in soils that are planted with legumes such as beans, lentils and peas.

  1. Amonification and nitrification

The next process in nitrogen cycle is ammonification. This process occurs when decomposers convert back ammonia that are released by dead organisms into ammonium. Amonia will be released to soil and react with hydrogen to form ammonium compounds. Ammonium can affect the pH of soils as it is acidic and can be easily lifted up to the air in gas form. Ammonium or NH4 then will be converted into nitrites by nitrifying bacteria such as nitrosomonas and nitrosococus. This process is called nitrification. These nitrites contribute to crops reproduction system.

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  1. Denitrification

During denitrification nitrates are reverted back into diatomic nitrogen gas. Several bacteria species are responsible for this process. They will perform denitrification in anaerobic conditions. NO3 is used as an alternative electron acceptor and reduced to various forms of nitrogen gases such as N2, NO or N2O. The existence of denitrifying bacteria in soils is essential as they help produce nitrogen gasses for plants that are inert to plants. That’s also the uses of nitrogen in soil.

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  1. Volatilization

Volatilization occurs when gaseous ammonia is released to the atmosphere. Ammonia will escape from soils when the conversion of ammonium is finished. This event is affected by soil pH, temperature, moisture, type of fertilizer and field residues. Basic soils with pH more than 7.5 allows volatilization to occur rapidly and the amount of ammonia released to the air will be greater than volatilization in acidic soils.

Significant loss of ammonia will also happen when urea fertilizers are used in soil instead of ammonium fertilizers. When soil temperatures hits 45o and dry soils with field residues that are not incorporated into the soils can increase the loss of ammonia during volatilization.

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  1. Functions of nitrogen in soils and plants

Nitrogen is one of chemical elements that become a part of amino acids. Plants synthesize nitrogen from soils along with other primary elements and turn them into amino acids. These chemical compounds are utilized by plants to increase the production and quality of crops.

Other than being a part of amino acids, nitrogen is also a component in nucleic acids or a form of large biological molecules in living organisms. These molecules are able to create the genetic code of plants.

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Lastly, nitrogen is one of the ingredients to form chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is a group of green pigments in plants that are present during photosynthesis. Chlorophyll also gives the green color on plants and algae. Photosynthesis will only occur at a high rate when there is a large amount of nitrogen present.

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  1. Nitrogen Fertilizers

Adding ammonium fertilizers with high amount of nitrogen to soils can change the pH of soils. Some of ammonium fertilizers are ammonium sulfate, ammonium phosphate, ammonium nitrate and urea. These fertilizers will alter the pH of soils to a more acidic condition. The conversion of ammonium to nitrate influences this acidic condition in soils. Meanwhile, fertilizers with low ammonium but high nitrites can increase the pH of soils. These types of fertilizers usually contain calcium.

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  1. Negative impacts of nitrogen in soils and other ecosystems

It is true that nitrogen and its variations carry a lot of benefits for soils and living organisms in the ecosystem. But excessive nitrogen levels can expose danger to the environment, especially to crops. The trend of applying additional fertilizers to maximize yield can lead to environmental damage.

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Instead of improving the grade of crops, uncontrolled amount of nitrogen in soils can reduce crop quality. It also opens a wide possibility for weeds to grow and increase the crop’s vulnerability. Attacks by diseases and insects can be more damaging than usual.

Rivers, lakes and other water sources that are too close to a land area that contains high nitrogen levels can experience the catastrophic effects. Marine and coastal organisms will skyrocket and ruin the balance in an aquatic ecosystem. Algae can reproduce swiftly and drain the oxygen level in the body of water. Thus, other organisms will suffer from the lack of oxygen. This calamity is known as eutrophication.

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Because nitrogen is soluble in water, this chemical element can act as a pollutant in the environment, especially groundwater reserves. It can reduce the quality of drinking water for humans. High nitrate concentration in human is dangerous as it can lead to methemoglobinemia, a condition where there is high amount of methemoglobin present in red blood cells. Due to this concern, researchers agree that nitrate level above 10 mg NO3 – N is classified as a pollutant.

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Several countries have started to control the use of additional fertilizers. Some states in America demand their farmers to enforce proper waste management plans in order to protect the environment and avoid groundwater pollution. Thus, nutrient management has become a challenge and a complex matter for farmers. To sum up, that’s the uses of nitrogen in soil.

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