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Fertilizers are classified in many ways. They are classified according to whether they provide a single nutrient (say, N, P, or K), in which case they are classified as "straight fertilizers." "Multinutrient fertilizers" (or "complex fertilizers") provide two or more nutrients, for example N and P. Fertilizers are also sometimes classified as inorganic (the topic of most of this article) vs organic. Inorganic fertilizers excludes carbon-containing materials except ureas. Organic fertilizers are usually (recycled) plant- or animal-derived matter. Inorganic are sometimes called synthetic fertilizers since various chemical treatments are required for their manufacture.

Single nutrient ("straight") fertilizers

The main nitrogen-based straight fertilizer is ammonia or its solutions. Ammonium nitrate (NH4NO3) is also widely used. About 15M tons were produced in 1981, i.e., several kilograms per person. Urea is another popular source of nitrogen, having the advantage that it is a solid and non-explosive, unlike ammonia and ammonium nitrate, respectively. A few percent of the nitrogen fertilizer market (4% in 2007) is met by calcium ammonium nitrate (Ca(NO3)2•NH4NO3•10H2O).

The main straight phosphate fertilizers are the superphosphates. "Single superphosphate" (SSP) consists of 14–18% P2O5, again in the form of Ca(H2PO4)2, but alsophosphogypsum (CaSO4 · 2 H2O). Triple superphosphate (TSP) typically consists of 44-48% of P2O5 and no gypsum. A mixture of single superphosphate and triple superphosphate is called double superphosphate. More than 90% of a typical superphosphate fertilizer is water-soluble.

Multinutrient fertilizers

These fertilizers are the most common. They consist of two or more nutrient components.

Binary (NP, NK, PK) fertilizers

Major two-component fertilizers provide both nitrogen and phosphorus to the plants. These are called NP fertilizers. The main NP fertilizer are monoammonium phosphate (MAP) and diammonium phosphate (DAP). The active ingredient in MAP is NH4H2PO4. The active ingredient in DAP is (NH4)2HPO4. About 85% of MAP and DAP fertilizers are soluble in water.

NPK fertilizers

Main article: Labeling of fertilizer

NPK fertilizers are three-component fertilizers providing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

NPK rating is a rating system describing the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in a fertilizer. NPK ratings consist of three numbers separated by dashes (e.g., 10-10-10 or 16-4-8) describing the chemical content of fertilizers. The first number represents the percentage of nitrogen in the product; the second number, P2O5; the third, K2O. Fertilizers do not actually contain P2O5 or K2O, but the system is a conventional shorthand for the amount of the phosphorus (P) or potassium (K) in a fertilizer. A 50-pound bag of fertilizer labeled 16-4-8 contains 8 pounds of nitrogen (16% of the 50 pounds) an amount of phosphorus and potassium equivalent to that in 2 pounds of P2O5 (4% of 50 pounds) and 4 pounds of K2O (8% of 50 pounds). Most fertilizers are labeled according to this N-P-K convention, though Australian convention, following an N-P-K-S system, adds a fourth number for sulfur.


The main micronutrients include sources of iron, manganese, molybdenum, zinc, and copper. As for the macronutrients, these elements are provided as water-soluble salts. Iron presents special problems because it converts to insoluble (bio-unavailable) compounds at moderate soil pH and phosphate concentrations. For this reason, iron is often administered as a chelate complex, e.g., the EDTA derivative. The micronutrient needs depend on the plant. For example, sugar beets appear to require boron, and legumesrequire cobalt.