Light-driven dinitrogen reduction: Scientists shed new light on global energy, food supply challenge

April 21, 2016 by Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Utah State University
All living things require nitrogen for survival, but the world depends on only two known processes to break nitrogen’s ultra-strong bonds and allow conversion to a form humans, animals and plants can consume. One is a natural, bacterial process on which farmers have relied since the dawn of agriculture. The other is the century-old Haber-Bösch process, which revolutionized fertilizer production and spurred unprecedented growth of the global food supply. Credit: Al Hicks/National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

All living things require nitrogen for survival, but the world depends on only two known processes to break nitrogen's ultra-strong bonds and allow conversion to a form humans, animals and plants can consume. One is a natural, bacterial process on which farmers have relied since the dawn of agriculture. The other is the century-old Haber-Bösch process, which revolutionized fertilizer production and spurred unprecedented growth of the global food supply.

"We live in a sea of nitrogen, yet our bodies can't access it from the air," says Utah State University biochemist Lance Seefeldt. "Instead, we get this life-sustaining compound from protein in our food."

Now, Seefeldt and colleagues announce a light-driven process that could, once again, revolutionize agriculture, while reducing the world food supply's dependence on fossil fuels and relieving Haber-Bösch's heavy carbon footprint. The research team, which includes USU's Seefeldt, Derek Harris, Andrew Rasmussen and Nimesh Khadka; Katherine A. Brown and Paul W. King of Colorado's National Renewable Energy Laboratory; Molly Wilker, Hayden Hamby and Gordana Dukovic of the University of Colorado and Stephen Keable and John Peters of Montana State University, publishes findings in the April 22, 2016 issue of the journal Science.

"Our research demonstrates photochemical energy can replace adenosine triphosphate, which is typically used to convert dinitrogen, the form of nitrogen found in the air, to ammonia, a main ingredient of commercially produced fertilizers," says Seefeldt, professor in USU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and an American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow.

The century-old Haber-Bösch process revolutionized fertilizer production and spurred unprecedented growth of the global food supply. A new,light-driven ammonia-producing process could, once again, revolutionize agriculture, while reducing the world food supply's dependence on fossil fuels and relieving Haber-Bösch's heavy carbon footprint.

Any way you slice it, he says, nitrogen fixation is an energy-intensive process.

"The Haber-Bösch process currently consumes about two percent of the world's fossil fuel supply," Seefeldt says. "So, the new process, which uses nanomaterials to capture light energy, could be a game-changer."

"Using light directly to create a catalyst is much more energy efficient, says Brown, NREL research scientist. "This new ammonia-producing process is the first example of how light energy can be directly coupled to dinitrogen reduction, meaning sunlight or artificial light can power the reaction."

Photochemical energy can replace adenosine triphosphate, which is typically used to convert dinitrogen, the form of nitrogen found in the air, to ammonia, a main ingredient of commercially produced fertilizers. Credit: Al Hicks/National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Energy-efficient production of ammonia holds promise not only for food production, but also for development of technologies that enable use of environmentally cleaner , including improved fuel cells to store solar energy.

In addition to its practical applications, the research sheds light on fundamental aspects of how bacterial enzymes known as nitrogenases function; an area of chemistry Seefeldt has studied for nearly two decades.

Utah State University biochemists, from left, doctoral student Nimesh Khadka, Professor Lance Seefeldt and doctoral student Derek Harris publish new findings about light-driven dinitrogen reduction in ‘Science.’ Credit: Mary-Ann Muffoletto/USU.
"Our current findings are the result of interdisciplinary collaboration," he says. "Each institution brought unique expertise to the project. We couldn't have succeeded without each partner's contributions to the collaboration."

Explore further: Which comes first? USU biochemists 'cracking code' of nitrogen fixation

More information: "Light-driven dinitrogen reduction catalyzed by a CdS:nitrogenase MoFe protein biohybrid," Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf2091

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FredJose
1.6 / 5 (7) Apr 21, 2016
Of course one must realize just how fortunate we are that a great accidental, random event occurred resulting in bacteria being able to fix nitrogen. Just like that. After all, it had to evolve all by itself, without any outside intelligent help whatsoever. Just ask this conglomerate of teams how great a time they had trying out random solutions to the problem of using light energy to help fix nitrogen.....
katesisco
1 / 5 (2) Apr 21, 2016
In other words, if we experience a solar flare, here on Earth nitrogen will suddenly be available to all life as energy?
katesisco
1 / 5 (1) Apr 21, 2016
And we were indeed fortunate to discover just how bacteria fix soil nitrogen; they use both positive and negative charge at the same time!
And with this realization, many other biological closed doors were opened!
big_hairy_jimbo
5 / 5 (3) Apr 21, 2016
@FredJose, yeah you're on the money man. I mean these guys worked this out in 20 years. But only took EVOLUTION millions of years!!!!! Do you actually understand Evolution, Natural Selection or Chemistry AT ALL FredJose?????? Rhetorical question, as your post states CLEARLY NOT!!!!!

On another note, the last infographic shows, what I suspect to be an inbound photon striking the nanorod, labelled as hv. I thought it was h(mu) or hf. what is the v??? I know v = f(lambda) and e=hf.
RealScience
5 / 5 (4) Apr 21, 2016
@b_h_j: it is h(nu), and a lower-case 'nu' is written ν which looks enough like a 'v' that someone formatting the text probably mistook it for a v... it usually has a little leading curl but the font of the comments section omits that so that as can be seen above it is almost identical to a v
RealScience
5 / 5 (4) Apr 21, 2016
@b_h_j - see "Greek small letter nu" in the font table: http://www.htmlhe...ols.html
big_hairy_jimbo
5 / 5 (3) Apr 21, 2016
Thanks for the clarification RealScience. All this time I thought it frequency was MU!!! Just googled it, and you are CORRECT, it is indeed NU. :-)
obama_socks
1 / 5 (3) Apr 21, 2016
@FredJose, yeah you're on the money man. I mean these guys worked this out in 20 years. But only took EVOLUTION millions of years!!!!! Do you actually understand Evolution, Natural Selection or Chemistry AT ALL FredJose?????? Rhetorical question, as your post states CLEARLY NOT!!!!!

On another note, the last infographic shows, what I suspect to be an inbound photon striking the nanorod, labelled as hv. I thought it was h(mu) or hf. what is the v??? I know v = f(lambda) and e=hf.
- b-h-j
Most Creationists still haven't figured out that the Creator allowed Evolution to begin and continue on for the benefit of each life form of Earth; and that Evolution is a necessary and practical method for survival of species. Most Creationists accept the Bible in its literal form without trying to understand the meanings that are hidden in plain sight. All 3 main religions are guilty of this oversight and it only serves to confuse many believers.
humy
5 / 5 (1) Apr 22, 2016
In other words, if we experience a solar flare, here on Earth nitrogen will suddenly be available to all life as energy?

No.

1, Solar flares don't come with nitrogen fixing catalysts to produce ammonia.

2, nitrogen is not energy.
humy
5 / 5 (1) Apr 22, 2016
Of course one must realize just how fortunate we are that a great accidental, random event occurred resulting in bacteria being able to fix nitrogen. Just like that. After all, it had to evolve all by itself, without any outside intelligent help whatsoever. Just ask this conglomerate of teams how great a time they had trying out random solutions to the problem of using light energy to help fix nitrogen.....


1, a random mutation to fix nitrogen may have been near-enough inevitable given billions of years; and then natural selection takes over which isn't random but inevitably results in many individuals having the advantageous characteristic (of fixing nitrogen in this case).

2, a human conglomerate of teams don't have the benefit of billions of years of time to kill at their disposal thus require a much faster and intelligent method than unintelligent blind random trial-and-error to make it happen. This is partly because most of them live for less than 100 years.

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