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Scientists sometimes discover mechanical processes that change the world itself, that give more opportunities for others to thrive and grow.
Such a discovery was made by Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch in 1909. The unearthing of their eponymous process changed the world forever. Sometimes in negative ways, like during World War I, but overall in ways that improved millions of lives. That is the legacy of the Haber–Bosch process.
And now, scientists at the University of Utah are looking to accomplish the same thing, but with a new process.
Let’s Talk Chemistry
The original method was the first creation of an artificial nitrogen fixation system, that was able to convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia. This, in turn, became the first chemical fertilizer that helped crops grow across Europe.
The requirements for the process include a high pressure and high temperature machine and certain catalysts in order to force the reaction of nitrogen gas (N2) with hydrogen gas (H2) in order to make ammonia (NH3).
It was so successful and useful in agriculture that today the vast majority of nitrogen in our bodies come from the Haber-Bosch process.
But there are downsides to high levels of forced nitrogen fixation. And it can be costly in some ways to run, making it less accessible for third world countries as a method. This leaves them with less crop growth and a food supply shortage.
It’s not surprising then that scientists have been searching for alternatives to the regular process, a way to produce the ammonia more directly via bacteria.
Specifically, the researchers have been isolating the enzymes that bacteria use for nitrogen fixation, enzymes called nitrogenases. They are able to cleave the hearty molecular bond between nitrogen atoms and reduce them into ammonia.
A drawback of the system is that the enzymes can only function in an oxygen free environment, meaning that the scientists had to devise a fuel cell container that could catalyze the reduction and function properly.
One positive side benefit from their twin cell containers is that the process derives electricity from the reduction, due to free electrons in the cycle, and doesn’t need to be manually charged like the Haber-Bosch process does.
The only thing preventing larger scale production of the fuel cells is the lack of cheap ATP to facilitate it. The researchers are currently looking into a way to avoid the necessity of ATP for the chemical reaction to occur.
The greatest benefit from the fuel cell design is that it both produces a small amount of ammonia over time, but also a positive amount of electricity, doubling as a fuel and energy producer.
Hopefully once completed, multiple uses can be found for such a multi-purpose device. And without the current 1% of global electricity per year that the Haber-Bosch process requires.
Photo CCs: Prototype plankton fuel cells from Wikimedia Commons