Our Research Decentralized torrefaction for producing high-yield, irrigation-saving fertilizer

Gloved hands holding fertilizer

Photo Credit: iStock Images

Principal Investigator

Ahmed Ghoniem

  • Ronald C. Crane (1972) Professor
  • Director of Center for Energy and Propulsion Research
  • Director of Reacting Gas Dynamics Laboratory
  • Department of Mechanical Engineering

Ahmed Ghoniem the Ronald C. Crane Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Director of the Center for Energy and Propulsion Research and the Reacting Gas Dynamics Laboratory at MIT. He received his B.Sc. and M.Sc. degree from Cairo University, and Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. His research covers computational engineering with application to turbulence and combustion, multiphase flow and multiscale phenomena, clean energy technologies with focus on CO2 capture, renewable energy and alternative fuels. His research has made fundamental contributions to multiscale simulations, thermochemistry, combustion dynamics, energy systems and materials chemistry. He supervised more than 100 M.Sc., Ph.D. and post-doctoral students, many are leaders in academia, industry and governments; published more than 500 refereed articles in leading journals and conferences; lectured extensively around the World; and consulted for the aerospace, automotive and energy industry. He is fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineer (ASME), the American institute of Physics (APS), the Combustion Institute (CI), and associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). He received several prestigious awards including the ASME James Harry Potter Award in Thermodynamics, the AIAA Propellant and Combustion Award, the KAUST Investigator Award and the Committed to “Committed to Caring Professor” at MIT. He is currently the MIT PI of the Center of Excellence for Energy, a $30M effort to improve energy research, education and entrepreneurship in Egypt.


Can we miniaturize and decentralize fertilizer production using biomass torrefaction?

Research Strategy

  • Collect and torrefy crop residues
  • Grind charred residue and mix with binding nutrient additive to make product
  • Evaluate variation of multiple feedstocks
  • Package and distribute as standalone fertilizer

Project description

J-WAFS Solutions Program

Many smallholder farmers depend on costly, synthetic fertilizers imported from abroad, and the misuse of such fertilizer in many cases has led to soil acidification and crop yield loss. One solution is currently being developed by mechanical engineering professor Ahmed Ghoniem and his lab: a new process called decentralized biomass torrefaction that downsizes and decentralizes fertilizer production, such that it can be carried out on a small-scale, village basis using mostly locally available resources, labor, and agricultural residues in under one hour.

A preliminary field trial in Africa [Kenya], showed that farmers who use this product typically observe an improved harvest (10-30%), increased net income (70-200%), and reduced irrigation need (~10%) at the same input cost. The result is an improvement in food security and a reduction in water consumption for smallholder farmers in rural areas.

This new process builds on our lab’s prior exploration in oxygen-lean torrefaction, which resulted in a new class of patent-pending biomass reactors that are lightweight and small-scale compared to others that are currently available. These portable reactors can be latched onto the back of tractors or inside standard shipping containers, and perform the biomass processing in the field rather than at a centralized plant. The J-WAFS Solutions Grant will support scale-up of the lab-scale technology to produce to a pre-commercial prototype.

Additional Details

Impact Areas

  • Food
  • Climate & Sustainability

Research Themes

  • Technology & Commercialization
  • Sustainability & Adaptation
  • Soil Fertility & Crop Productivity
  • Transforming Food Systems
  • Equity & Access

Year Funded

  • 2018

Grant Type

  • Solutions Grant


  • Ongoing