But we need to tap a small proportion of the nitrogen to produce fertiliser. Nitrogen is the limiting factor in growing food and without artificial fertiliser the world could support only about half the population it currently has.
Most of our nitrogen fertiliser comes from the Haber-Bosch process, invented just over a century ago. This produces ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen using high pressures and temperature and catalysts. The statistics of the current Haber-Bosch technology are staggering. It consumes 5% of global natural gas and releases large quantities of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Better, carbon-free processes are going to be required as the world’s population increases towards its projected 10 billion by2100.
Carbon dioxide is currently the problem but like nitrogen it could be a solution: it is a resource that could be mined if we had the right processes. Carbon in its reduced form is the stuff of life: the fabric of all living things, the basis of food, energy and a feedstock for plastics and many of the materials that sustain us.
Both the chemical bonds in nitrogen and carbon dioxide are difficult to break to produce the substances we need; great ingenuity is now being applied to the question.
In a recent Science paper (8 August 2014) Stuart Licht’s team at George Washington University, Washington, have reversed an existing technology, the ammonia fuel cell, to produce ammonia efficiently from water, air and electricity, using a potassium hydroxide/sodium hydroxide electrlyte and a nano iron oxide catalyt. The yields are excellent and the scope for scaling up to industrial production promising. There is even an option to incorporate thermal energy into the process.
The key to bringing carbon dioxide into the virtuous material cycle is methanol, already a key industrial substance. There are many processes for converting carbon dioxide to methanol, some already in industrial production, notable at the George Olah methanol plant in Iceland.
In another Science paper (1 August 2014) a Spanish/US/Venezuelan team report new catalysts for methanol production from carbon dioxide, using a catalyst of copper coated with cerium oxide or copper with both cerium oxide and titanium dioxide. The latter was the most successful.
The question with all such processes is not does it work but does it work efficiently enough to oust the current standard technology? With both atmospheric nitrogen fixation and carbon dioxide reduction, necessity is driving such technologies to fruition.
The story of the George Olah methanol plan is told in Nanoscience: Giants of the Infinitesimal.