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Could The World Run On Nitrogen?

A team of scientists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison is trying to transform the world from a carbon economy to a nitrogen economy. In an extremely innovative approach supported by the United States Department of Energy, researchers have identified a way of converting ammonia to nitrogen gas in a reaction that creates energy while requiring no energy inputs itself. This discovery is part of a nascent technology that is a long way from commercial viability, but which holds great promise for a world that is furiously trying to decarbonize.

The findings were recently published in the scientific journal Nature Chemistry in a paper featuring the catchy title “Spontaneous N2 formation by a diruthenium complex enables electrocatalytic and aerobic oxidation of ammonia.” The “spontaneity” of their discovery is hugely important. The researchers found that “the addition of ammonia to a metal catalyst containing the platinum-like element ruthenium spontaneously produced nitrogen, which means that no added energy was required,” according to reporting from SciTechDaily. The way in which these scientists are making nitrogen is “completely unprecedented” and marks an enormously exciting discovery on the innovations end of the energy sector. 

While ammonia has been used as a fuel source for the better part of a century, its combustion creates a nitrogen oxide gas which is highly toxic. Scientists have pursued the idea of ammonia as a clean energy source, however, since it’s abundant, easy to store, burns similarly to propane, and emits no greenhouse gases. Plus, it’s efficient: an ammonia fuel cell has10 times the energy density of a lithium-ion battery. The shipping industry, in particular, has been extremely hopeful that ammonia may be the answer to clean up the sector -- one of the dirtiest in the world. 

While scientists have been looking into ammonia as a clean energy source for a while now, there have been a number of challenges to finding a way to make it viable. In a 2019 scientific paper on “Science and technology of ammonia combustion,” a team of scientists listed these myriad hurdles and summed up that “overcoming these challenges requires further research into ammonia flame dynamics and chemistry.” Now, two years later, researchers have made a serious breakthrough.  Related: Canada's Ambitious New Plan To Save Its Oil Sands

The method discovered by the research team at the University of Wisconsin can be used to create clean energy, releasing nothing but protons and nitrogen gas as byproducts, neither of which pose a threat to the atmosphere. What’s more, the metal used in the process can be recycled and reused, making the process efficient, green, and low-waste. If we can scale up this technology for widespread use in the future, it could be a hugely promising advance in the fight against climate change and the global push for the decarbonization of our largely coal- and oil-fuelled economies. 

“The world currently runs on a carbon fuel economy,” Christian Wallen, one of the authors of the Nature Chemistry paper was quoted by SciTechDaily. “It’s not a great economy because we burn hydrocarbons, which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We don’t have a way to close the loop for a true carbon cycle, where we could transform carbon dioxide back into a useful fuel.”

A nitrogen economy could be the answer for a cleaner, greener, and more liveable world in the future. Emerging technologies and outside-the-box thinking are a hugely important part of the struggle to decarbonize. While proven technologies need to be prioritized in the clean energy transition since there is absolutely no time to waste, humans are going to have to get creative in order to meet the massive scale of the challenge ahead of us, and to do so in time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. To this end, the brand new U.S. Infrastructure Bill has provisioned a brand new branch of the Department of Energy called the Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations, which will direct $21.5 billion at the oversight of brand new pilot projects that push the envelope on new and innovative clean energy technologies.

By Haley Zaremba for

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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the… More