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Published: July 2010
Urea consumption is driven primarily by its use as a solid fertilizer product. Urea is the most popular solid form of nitrogen fertilizer, particularly in the developing regions of the world where most of the growth in consumption is occurring. In some regions, significant volumes of urea are also used in the manufacture of nitrogen solutions that are subsequently used as fertilizer materials. Solid urea is also used in controlled/slow-release fertilizers. The leading industrial (nonfertilizer) uses of urea include the production of urea-formaldehyde resin and melamine, and in livestock feed. A growing application during the forecast period is environmental consumption in nitrous oxide removal.
Fertilizer applications accounted for 90.9% of all urea consumption in 2009. Industrial applications accounted for the remaining 9.1%, led by production of urea-formaldehyde resins and melamine, livestock (animal) feed, and environmental and other applications.
Partly driving the growth of urea consumption is the increasing global population, available disposable income and dietary changes. In addition, the amount of available arable land has not increased since 1960, yet average yield has increased dramatically. More fertilizer will be needed to meet the growing need for food. Because of its high nitrogen content (46%), urea is the most popular form of solid nitrogen fertilizer, particularly in the developing regions of the world, and is traded widely in the international market. More than 40% of all food grown in the world is fertilized by urea.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of urea:
A growing use of urea is in environmental applications, where it is being used in mobile and stationary nitrous oxide (NOx) reduction, both of which are being mandated by legislation. Urea is used as a diesel exhaust fluid as one of the key elements of the selective catalytic reduction process to reduce nitrous oxides (NOx) from heavy-duty diesel engines. The advantage of urea is that it can meet the new near-zero NOx emission requirements imposed by the U.S. EPA and Western Europe, while at the same time achieving 3–5% greater fuel efficiency. Environmental consumption in both the United States and Europe is expected to grow dramatically during 2009–2014—Europe at 12.3% annually and the U.S. and Europe combined at 20% annually. Urea is also used to reduce NOx levels in power plant emissions. Growth is predicted in other regions as well, including Australia, Brazil, China, India and Japan.
World nitrogen prices were relatively steady during 2004–2007 prior to the increase in energy pricing at the end of 2007. Prices escalated further due to China implementing a higher urea export tax and a spike in grain pricing. Prices dropped in late 2008 with the global economic crisis, but have gradually increased in early 2010. For producers of nitrogen fertilizers, the key is lower long-term natural gas pricing.
Demand for urea grew at 3.8% annually during 1994–2009, but is forecast to slow to about 3% annually during 2009–2014. Use in environmental applications is rapidly growing for both stationary and mobile nitrous oxide (NOx) reduction applications.