The worst shortage you haven't heard of
Should China occupy Taiwan, it would control a majority of the world's microchip manufacturing production. But China needn't invade Taiwan to bring America to its knees — simply reducing urea and other existing Chinese exports is already wreaking havoc. Agricultural fertilizer prices have nearly doubled in the past year, and shrinking supplies of Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) now threaten America's transportation system. The impact of urea supply shortages on food inflation will be compounded by distribution failures if additional DEF resources are not procured immediately.
DEF is an emissions control liquid required by the EPA in diesel engines manufactured after 2010 as an "aftertreatment technology" to reduce vehicle emissions. This additive is required for most modern diesel truck fleets. Without it, many trucks cannot exceed five miles per hour in speed, or even be started. Truckers are now reporting increasing DEF shortages around the nation.
EPA mandates for DEF in diesel engines were not matched by increases in DEF production, and China cut back DEF manufacturing last year, leading to the current threat:
Commercial motor vehicles that move commodities across the US utilize approximately 37.6 million tons of DEF and we are experiencing a global shortage. ... China's increased demand for urea in farming caused it to cut production of DEF fluid. ... [For] about every 200 gallons of diesel used you will use about 1 gallon of DEF. The mandate for DEF began in 2010, so the average age of vehicles on the road utilizing the commodity is growing. The older vehicles are less efficient at burning fuel and therefore require more DEF. More and more vehicles that are lawfully required to use DEF continue to hit the market with no more manufacturing taking place in the DEF supply chain. ... In conclusion, as demand and price continue to increase with no real solution to manufacture more DEF long-term, the disruption to an already reeling supply chain situation could be exacerbated by a DEF shortage. All diesel-powered trucks since 2010 require DEF to run. If the trucks DEF tank runs empty, the truck will shut down and not run, meaning millions of commercial transportation trucks could be sidelined at the height of the trucking industry need.
DEF is composed of water (67.5%) and urea (32.5%). The Biden administration has not announced plans to avert the DEF crisis, having failed to present proposals to counter inflation, baby formula inventories, gas prices, or America's porous southern border. Rather than succumb to degrading dependency on China even for the ability to truck food from California to Connecticut, Americans must quickly craft domestic market solutions to this growing threat.
A modest proposal might employ human urine (once used as a tooth whitener) as a solution: it contains about 2% urea. With centralized urban processing and collection facilities, a mere 16 gallons of human pee would infuse 200 gallons of road diesel with DEF for delivering tomatoes and grapes to Manhattan and Newark. The average person discharges 800–2,000 milliliters of urine daily, or about a gallon every three days. All we need is 37.6 million tons of urea (projected to double by 2027)!
This contrast reveals how a ubiquitous and vital substance like urea can create dangerous dependencies in modern industrial globalization and "too big not to fail" distribution systems. It is not clear whether manufacturing fixes can be implemented in diesel truck fleets to make them operable sans DEF. China may resume exports of urea, but the high prices of natural gas (the primary resource for its manufacture) ensure that it will remain costly. Australia is similarly DEF-dependent and facing a crisis. Europe exports DEF but is struggling with natural gas shortages that are restricting production.
America faces a myriad of growing crises connected to fossil fuel prices, transportation systems, and food supplies. These are all interconnected. Delay in designing solutions is an impermissible luxury: there is no need to worry about Taiwanese microchips if there is no DEF to ensure that American trucks remain functional.
But still, the modus operandi of the Biden administration is a pursed-lip puzzlement. As to DEF and urea shortages, this POTUS does not appear to have even a pot to pee in.
Image via Pixabay.