Could Chinese Prohibition Kill Your Diesel Pickup Truck?

We love to complain about the lumbering diesel trucks that haunt our highways. While road tripping without them around could seem nicer, not having our trucks delivering goods would be catastrophic. Well, without urea, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

A row of GMC diesel trucks
GMC trucks | Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

What is urea? 

urea is the main component of diesel exhaust fluid. This foul juice is necessary in ensuring that diesel combustion engines function within nitrogen oxide emissions standards across the developed world. Basically, diesel exhaust fluid cleans the oil-burning emissions. And, yes, if you are noticing a connection between “urea” and “urine,” you aren’t crazy.

A solution of urea and water is injected into the exhaust stream of diesel vehicles before the gasses pass through a catalytic converter. 

Prices for this humble chemical are climbing to heights not seen in over a decade. The urea shortage is yet another in a long line of supply chain issues factoring into delays and super inflation. But urea links up to several already worn strands of global economic disruption, showing how fragile our supply lines really are. 

Why is a urea shortage such a big deal for your diesel truck? 

closeup photo of a diesel fuel pump as Urea shortage looms.
Diesel fuel pump | Mark Renders/Getty Images

Without this chemical, one of our main forces in the supply chain – diesel trucks – gets hobbled, knocking them out of the game. Farmers in India are already panicking. According to the New York Times, many semi-trucks in South Korea are already parked. 

To make matters worse, urea is also an important ingredient in some fertilizers, putting even more strain on the already strained supply. 

Why is China refusing to export its urea? 

Semi-trucks on the Highway
Semi-trucks | JEFF DEAN/AFP via Getty Images

It can often be tough to discern China and Russia’s intentions behind the things that these countries do. However, this one seems a bit more shrouded than normal. China and Russia are two of the largest urea manufacturers in the world. However, these two nations refuse to sell any of their supply to reserve enough for their own farmers and shipping infrastructure. 

China is currently experiencing a bit of an energy crunch causing certain areas to ration electricity. These restrictions forced some urea production plants to cut their output, furthering the limited supply, insane prices, and overall rarity of urea. 

Don’t forget about natural disasters and other geopolitical drama 

If the geopolitical powerplays of China and Russia, along with resource hoarding, weren’t enough, we also have unprecedented weather events to add to the mix. 

In August, Hurricane Ida caused multiple large chemical plants to halt operations when it tore through the U.S. Gulf Coast. The Times also said that Sanctions on Belarus had hit the nation’s potash production, the key ingredient in another fertilizer causing the demand for urea-based fertilizer prices to compound. 

We are all connected 

The increasingly connected world we live in offers a bounty of riches and interconnected cultural masterpieces, yet it also ties us to each other’s fate. This means that when a urea shortage begins in Southeast Asia, it will eventually touch the entire world. Because food-grade carbon dioxide (the stuff that makes drink carbonized) is a by-product of this fertilizer production that has ceased, for now, even our bubbly drinks might feel this diesel truck chemical shortage. We live in strange times, indeed. 

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