Discovery Shows Deadly Gas Can Act As Fertilizer

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The rotten egg stench of sewer gas, or hydrogen sulfide, usually smells of death for plants. However, a flubbed experiment found that the toxic gas also can be a potent fertilizer.

University of Washington doctoral student Frederick Dooley wanted to study how plants reacted as they were dying from hydrogen sulfide poisoning. At high enough concentrations, the gas binds with iron in a living organism and blocks cellular respiration, which causes sickness and death. However, Dooley accidentally used one-tenth of the amount of the chemical that he had intended. Instead of killing the plants, they were super-charged.

“They germinate faster and they produce roots and leaves faster. Basically what we’ve done is accelerate the entire plant process,” said Dooley in a press release.

Wheat seeds germinated in one to two days, instead of the usual four or five. The germination rate for peas and beans increased 60 to 70 percent, compared to the normal 40 percent. Crop yields were nearly doubled. The results were published in PLOS ONE.

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But hydrogen sulfide gas can burn or explode when mixed with other gases, according to OSHA. And as the recent disaster in Texas showed, flammable fertilizers can have deadly consequences. What’s more, an accidental release of the gas could become a cloud of poison. The British even used the gas in chemical warfare during World War II.

On the other hand, hydrogen sulfide production doesn’t require as much fossil fuel use as some other fertilizers. Large amounts of hydrogen sulfide are actually extracted as an impurity from some natural gas deposits.

IMAGE: A specialist measures air quality near a fire scene at the Qionglai-1 gas well of China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), China’s biggest oil and gas producer, in Dayi County, Chengdu, capital of southwest China’s Sichuan Province on Dec. 22, 2011. The gas well exploded during a nitrogen drilling operation. No toxic hydrogen sulfide gas was found in the gas leakage after the blast. (Xinhua/Xue Yubin/Corbis)

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