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

maandag 29 september 2008 10:52

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 30 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
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).  

Global change issues
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.  

Jan Willem Erisman is the Unit Manager for Biomass, Coal and Environmental Research (BKM) at the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN).

Nature Geoscience: How a century of ammonia synthesis changed the world DOI: 10.1038/ngeo325  

The article is co-authored by:
Mark A. Sutton, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Edinburgh Research Station, Bush Estate, Penicuik, Midlothian, EH26 0QB, UK
James Galloway, Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia, P.O. Box 400123, 291 McCormick Rd, Charlottesville, VA  22904, USA
Zbigniew Klimont, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
Wilfried Winiwarter, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria and Austrian Research Centers, Donau-City Str. 1, A-1220 Vienna, Austria 

Lead author contact:
Jan Willem Erisman (Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands, Petten, Netherlands)
T: +31 224 56 4155 E: erisman@remove-this-part-ecn.nl 

UK Press Office contact:
Kate Groves, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, T: +44(0)7920 727 653
E: groves@remove-this-part-ceh.ac.uk

Categorie: Corporate, Biomassa, Kolen & Milieuonderzoek