Top nitrogen researchers imagine world beyond fossil fuels

May 25, 2018 by Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Utah State University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Freeways choked with traffic, supermarkets laden with fertilizer-grown stock from distance fields and virtually everything we touch derived from petroleum-based plastics. It's hard to imagine life beyond our fossil-fueled world. Black gold has brought us unprecedented prosperity, but it's also polluted our environment, perhaps irreparably, and it's in finite supply. Now what?

The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind. But not in the plaintive, unattainable way Bob Dylan expressed in his famous lyrics. Life-giving flows all around us and, according to Utah State University biochemist Lance Seefeldt and other top scientists, it holds the key to sustainability beyond nonrenewable energy.

The U.S. Department of Energy Office of Basic Energy Sciences gathered Seefeldt and 16 other experts in nitrogen research in Washington, D.C. for an October 2016 summit to discuss the current field of nitrogen activation chemistry and its future directions. The team reports their conclusions in a review article in the May 25, 2018, issue of the journal Science.

"This gathering was a 'Who's Who' of nitrogen research," says Seefeldt, professor in USU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, an American Academy for the Advancement of Science Fellow and a co-chair of the gathering. "Our group included Nobel Laureate Robert Schrock and the culmination of our efforts is truly a tour de force. No one of us, individually, could have written this report."

All life on earth requires nitrogen and a whopping 80 percent of the planet's atmosphere, in the form of dinitrogen, is comprised of the life-sustaining gas. Yet, neither animals nor plants can access nitrogen directly.

"It's an incredible irony," Seefeldt says. "We need nitrogen to survive and we're swimming in a sea of it, but we can't get to it. Humans and animals get nitrogen from protein in our food. Plants get nitrogen from the soil."

Which is where fossil fuels entered the picture about a century ago. German scientists Franz Haber and Carl Bösch pioneered a revolutionary process to break nitrogen's ultra-strong bonds and enable commercial-scale production of fertilizer, which spurred unprecedented growth of the and, subsequently, the world's population.

"It was one of history's technological marvels, but it currently consumes about two percent of the world's fossil fuel supply and thus, it's come with a very heavy carbon footprint," Seefeldt says.

What did he and his fellow scientists conclude from their summit? It's time to embark on a new revolution.

"Opportunities exist to achieve radically improved, new and different pathways (to achieve nitrogen transformations)," the scientists write. "But progress in this regard will require a molecular-level understanding of nitrogen transformation reactions, as well as ... discovery of new catalytic systems and alternative means of delivering the energy needed to drive those reactions."

Seefeldt and his USU team, whose research is supported by the DOE, have already pioneered efforts toward a clean and renewable light-driven process for converting nitrogen to ammonia, a primary component of fertilizer.

"Our research on this process, which uses nanomaterials to capture light energy, demonstrates how sunlight or artificial light can power ," Seefeldt says. "It a potential game-changer."

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

More information: Jingguang G. Chen et al, Beyond fossil fuel–driven nitrogen transformations, Science (2018). DOI: 10.1126/science.aar6611

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15 comments

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Shootist
1.6 / 5 (11) May 25, 2018
the stone age didn't end for lack of stone.
aksdad
1.4 / 5 (18) May 26, 2018
[nitrogen fertilizer] was one of history's technological marvels, but it currently consumes about two percent of the world's fossil fuel supply and thus, it's come with a very heavy carbon footprint

Meanwhile, all that CO2 released into the atmosphere—which is an essential plant food—has measurably improved crop production. Who knew that burning fossil fuels to produce nitrogen provides a double benefit to agriculture? If that isn't serendipitous, I don't know what is.

Remember symbiosis? Animals consume oxygen and emit CO2. Plants consume CO2 and emit oxygen. We're giving them a little extra.

Alarmists—glass half empty kind of folks—conjure an apocalypse from minuscule traces of atmospheric CO2 while the rest of us experience prosperity and the best living conditions humanity has ever had.

Anyone tired of listening to the doomsayers yet?
humy
4.7 / 5 (14) May 26, 2018

Meanwhile, all that CO2 released into the atmosphere—which is an essential plant food—has measurably improved crop production.

No, it hasn't. It's fertilizing effect is and certainly will be by increasing amount more than offset by the increase in crop damage from extreme whether events it causes. Your condescending biology lesson telling us what we obviously all already know about photosynthesis is irrelevant.
humy
4.6 / 5 (7) May 26, 2018
...whether events it ...

My misspelling; that should be 'weather'.
rrwillsj
3.4 / 5 (5) May 26, 2018
Oh hunny. Whether or not you weather the storm is neither hear gnor their. What is important is to avoid becoming a denial shill wether!
ZoeBell
May 26, 2018
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
antigoracle
1.3 / 5 (15) May 26, 2018
the stone age didn't end for lack of stone.


Chicken Little stupidity is also unlimited, but don't expect the AGW Cult's pathological lies to end anytime soon.
Just look at the ignorant comment from humy.
carbon_unit
3.9 / 5 (7) May 26, 2018
Animals consume oxygen and emit CO2. Plants consume CO2 and emit oxygen. We're giving them a little extra.
No, we're giving them a **LOT** extra. We're releasing the stored carbon from a whole 'hot house Earth' geological era, millions of years, in mere centuries. The change of level is not as much a problem as the rate of change. The change is happening faster than systems can adapt and that is doing damage.
Dan Frederiksen
5 / 5 (1) May 26, 2018
In these internet times of extreme opportunity and data amounts, could you please ffs refrain from the verbose novelist style of writing and just cut to the effing chase.
Time is of the essence.
If it can be conveyed in the title, do so. Otherwise you better be hot on it in the very first line of the body. Not slow walking with Hemmingway. Ugh.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4 / 5 (4) May 27, 2018
the stone age didn't end for lack of stone
"As quoted in "Eco-designs on future cities" by BBC News (14 June 2005) The quote "The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil" appears in The Telegraph, attributed to Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, and precedes McDonough's reference by 5 years..."
MR166
1.5 / 5 (8) May 27, 2018
"
No, it hasn't. It's fertilizing effect is and certainly will be by increasing amount more than offset by the increase in crop damage from extreme whether events it causes. Your condescending biology lesson telling us what we obviously all already know about photosynthesis is irrelevant"

You are totally wrong about increasing extreme weather. It may have been postulated but there is no empirical proof. If anything there have been fewer hurricanes and tornadoes. Crop loss due to cold weather is more of a real problem. The earth is greening and the trees are growing better than ever. If only we would stop cutting down the jungles in order to produce "Green" biofuels.
MR166
1.6 / 5 (7) May 27, 2018
"Instead of overloading expensive grids and/or twaddling about even more expensive batteries the solar / wind plants should be utilized to production of energy hungry metals (aluminium) and chemicals (like the nitrogen-based fertilizers) which represent natural energy storage and which also have their natural usage."

I have said the same thing. The problem is that many industrial processes cannot be started and stopped at will and some need to be operated 24/7 at full capacity in order to remain viable.
gkam
1 / 5 (6) May 27, 2018
"Anyone tired of listening to the doomsayers yet?"

Read "The Nitrogen Bomb"

Read it.
ZoeBell
May 27, 2018
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
HeloMenelo
4 / 5 (8) May 29, 2018
the stone age didn't end for lack of stone.


Chicken Little stupidity is also unlimited, but don't expect the AGW Cult's pathological lies to end anytime soon.
Just look at the ignorant comment from humy.


Aaah.. AntiScienceGorilla swinging by again i see...
The only LIES comes from your bafooninsh chattering snout dumbnuts, Anything Real and True is ignorant for you as you can only see past the next Banana from the tree you're swinging.

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