Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

100 years of ammonia synthesis: how a single patent changed the world

29.09.2008
Now it is time to invent sustainable solutions to avoid environmental damage

As a result of the Haber–Bosch process for the synthesis of ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen, billions of people have been fed, millions have died in armed conflict and a cascade of environmental changes has been set in motion - suggests a feature article by scientists from four of the world’s leading environmental research centres that will be published online on 28 September in Nature Geoscience.

The feature appears 100 years after Fritz Haber filed his patent on the ‘synthesis of ammonia from its elements’ for which he was later awarded the 1918 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Lead author, Jan Willem Erisman from the Energy research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN), explains: “The increasing demand for food and biofuels makes efficient use of nitrogen fertilizer and more sustainable energy a challenge for many. Haber-Bosch is perhaps the most significant invention of the 20th Century, yet it has many side effects. Now we need a new invention that changes the world just as much, but without the environmental impact.”

The feature article explains that we now live in a world transformed by, and highly dependent upon, Haber-Bosch nitrogen. This extra nitrogen has allowed large scale production of explosives with the result of millions of casualties. On the other hand, it has created an enormous chemical industry producing materials and goods for society. The major impact, however, has been the large scale production of fertilizers supporting almost half of the world's population through increased food production.

While the use of nitrogen as a fertilizer has brought enormous benefits, losses of fertilizer nitrogen to the environment lead to many side effects. These include reduced biodiversity and the formation of marine algal blooms. Nitrogen compounds endanger the quality of drinking water, and contribute to air pollution as well as climate change, affecting life quality and the health of large parts of the population.

Future scenarios suggest that such problems will become more extreme, with a potential doubling of fertilizer use predicted over the coming century. This demand is partly driven by the growing requirement for ‘nitrogen hungry’ biofuels. These environmental challenges highlight the need for a new invention, as transforming as the Haber-Bosch process that would benefit both society and the global environment.

The feature concludes by arguing that today’s society is dependent on a nitrogen-based economy and discusses some of the challenges we are likely to face in the next 100 years.

The global nitrogen challenge is an issue that is set to receive more attention in the future. For example, the European Commission is funding the NitroEurope project, a consortium of over 60 research institutions, which is investigating the effect of nitrogen on global warming. Its results will feed into the work of the ‘Task Force on Reactive Nitrogen’, recently established by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN-ECE).

Mark Sutton from the UK’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, who is co-chair of the UN-ECE Task Force and one of the feature’s authors, commented: “It is remarkable how a century of Haber-Bosch nitrogen has transformed all our lives. Without it, half of us might not be alive today. At the same time, the environmental impacts of nitrogen cut across all global change issues. To reduce these effects, we must improve nitrogen use efficiency, especially in food production.”

The research programme of Erisman and colleagues at ECN further highlights the role of bioenergy in the nitrogen cycle. ECN is developing second generation technology for bioenergy and biofuels that will contribute to limiting fertilizer use in the future.

Barnaby Smith | alfa
Further information:
http://www.nature.com/ngeo/
http://www.ceh.ac.uk

More articles from Science Education:

nachricht Starting school boosts development
11.05.2017 | Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung

nachricht New Master’s programme: University of Kaiserslautern educates experts in quantum technology
15.03.2017 | Technische Universität Kaiserslautern

All articles from Science Education >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: The pyrenoid is a carbon-fixing liquid droplet

Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.

A warming planet

Im Focus: Highly precise wiring in the Cerebral Cortex

Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.

The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...

Im Focus: Tiny lasers from a gallery of whispers

New technique promises tunable laser devices

Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...

Im Focus: Ultrafast snapshots of relaxing electrons in solids

Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!

When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...

Im Focus: Quantum Sensors Decipher Magnetic Ordering in a New Semiconducting Material

For the first time, physicists have successfully imaged spiral magnetic ordering in a multiferroic material. These materials are considered highly promising candidates for future data storage media. The researchers were able to prove their findings using unique quantum sensors that were developed at Basel University and that can analyze electromagnetic fields on the nanometer scale. The results – obtained by scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, the University of Montpellier and several laboratories from University Paris-Saclay – were recently published in the journal Nature.

Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously react to electric and magnetic fields. These two properties are rarely found together, and their combined...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

“Lasers in Composites Symposium” in Aachen – from Science to Application

19.09.2017 | Event News

I-ESA 2018 – Call for Papers

12.09.2017 | Event News

EMBO at Basel Life, a new conference on current and emerging life science research

06.09.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Rainbow colors reveal cell history: Uncovering β-cell heterogeneity

22.09.2017 | Life Sciences

Penn first in world to treat patient with new radiation technology

22.09.2017 | Medical Engineering

Calculating quietness

22.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>