Nitrogen Fixation Background

What is "nitrogen fixation"?

Nitrogen is one of the most abundant elements and makes up approximately 78% of our atmosphere. As a gas, nitrogen is very inert and difficult to utilize. However, bacteria can "fix" this nitrogen and chemically transform nitrogen from air into ammonia (NH₃) or other compounds which constitute the basic building blocks of life like amino acids and proteins. Ammonia is an essential chemical for human life on earth, as it is a fertilizer necessary for growing the food necessary to sustain the global population!

Since nature does not produce enough ammonia to support humanity, chemists have turned to industrial processes to perform nitrogen fixation. In particular, the Haber-Bosch Process produces enough ammonia to feed 60% of the global population using a metal "catalyst" to convert nitrogen and hydrogen to ammonia. It is estimated that half of the nitrogen atoms in your body passed through the Haber-Bosch process before becoming part of you!

A Haber-Bosch chemical plant located in Ludwigshafen, Germany.


Unfortunately, the Haber-Bosch process also accounts for about 2% of global fossil fuel consumption and produces greenhouse gases related to this consumption. While we need it to feed our world, it has a significant contribution to the destruction of our habitable environment. After almost a century of relying on the process, the time has come for a shift to meet increasing world population demands in a sustainable way. By using renewable energy sources and feedstocks such as water and sustainable electricity, we can significantly reduce carbon emissions while still performing nitrogen fixation.

What is a "catalyst"?

A catalyst is a substance that can change the rate of a chemical reaction without be consumed. Since this compound regenerates itself upon reacting, only a small amount is required for large scale chemical reactions. Catalysts play a role in many aspects of our lives, including our biological functions, production of daily-use commodities, and energy storage. And so much more!

Left: Polyethylene, a material used in many consumer products, is produced via catalytic polymerization.

Center: Lactaid milk is an option for those who lack the lactase enzyme, a biological catalyst, which is necessary to digest dairy products.

Right: Catalytic converters convert dangerous byproducts of fuel combustion into safer exhaust.

Why are we interested in any of this?

Our goal, in creating this website, is to increase the awareness of humanity's reliance on fossil fuel while simultaneously pointing to solutions that harness sustainable alternatives. To achieve this, we develop practical links between renewable energy and catalyst development for storing energy and making fertilizers.

This website hosts resources for demonstrations, experiments, and lessons about electrochemistry and catalysis for different levels of schooling as well as video lectures explaining the content.