Monday, December 14, 2009

Basic Chemistry

While the hi-tech end of chemistry has made progress by leaps and bounds of late, a lot of industrial chemistry still depends on processes developed back around 1900. For example, the Haber process -- that's the same Haber who was the father of gas warfare in WW I -- is still the main way we extract nitrogen from the atmosphere and put it to chemical use. This week chemists have announced a new, more efficient method of fixing nitrogen that can be employed at industrial scales.

About 78 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere is nitrogen, but harnessing it isn’t easy. Atmospheric nitrogen atoms live like inseparable twins, in the form of N2, strongly linked by a triple bond and relatively inert. This dinitrogen will react with oxygen and rain to Earth, where various microbes “fix” it — separate the twins, making them available to bond with other molecules, such as carbon.

To get that carbon-nitrogen bond in the lab, Cornell University chemist Paul Chirik and colleagues attacked the N2 bond with metal and carbon monoxide. The scientists started with a complex of the metal hafnium and dinitrogen in solution and then added carbon monoxide gas. Electrons from the hafnium and carbon “rip the triple bond,” says Chirik. As part of the reaction, the carbon from the carbon monoxide then bonds to the nitrogen atoms, creating a useful carbon-nitrogen bond.

I suspect that we probably devote too much brainpower to exciting things like sub-atomic physics and nanotechnology, while there are still vast improvements to be made in low-tech areas like fixing nitrogen, making steel, ventilating houses and the like.

1 comment:

David said...

Wait--over in the art section you said something about wonder . . .

Anyway, I'm not sure steel is an area we should be innovating in. We've got way, way too much production capacity as it is.

I get the impression a good deal of research does go into some unglamorous projects like battery capacity.

A place I'd put more effort in is making mass-production vegetables taste better. All the advertising and rah-rah in the world can't compare to actually growing a tomato that looks good, lasts a decent amount of time, AND tastes like an actual tomato.