Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Researchers Uncover A Piece Of Nature's Secret Nitrogen Formula

Date:
October 16, 2001
Source:
University Of Rochester
Summary:
Pulling nitrogen from the air to make fertilizer is one of the biggest commercial chemical enterprises in the world, involving a complex process of heating dangerously combustible hydrogen under very high pressures. Meanwhile, in the ground just outside these nitrogen-fixation factories, tiny bacteria are also pulling nitrogen from the air-but they are doing it at room temperature and at everyday pressures while being every bit as efficient as the factories. Now a team of researchers thinks it's found a key piece of the puzzle that lets these microorganisms best the world's biggest chemical production business.

Pulling nitrogen from the air to make fertilizer is one of the biggest commercial chemical enterprises in the world, involving a complex process of heating dangerously combustible hydrogen under very high pressures. Meanwhile, in the ground just outside these nitrogen-fixation factories, tiny bacteria are also pulling nitrogen from the air-but they are doing it at room temperature and at everyday pressures while being every bit as efficient as the factories. Now a team of researchers thinks it's found a key piece of the puzzle that lets these microorganisms best the world's biggest chemical production business.

"Nature figured out how to fix nitrogen a billion years before we did," says Patrick Holland, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Rochester and author of the research published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. "We're just playing catch-up." Bacteria called azotrophs on the roots of plants take nitrogen from the air and "fix" it, turning it and hydrogen into ammonia that plants use to make DNA and proteins. Animals get nitrogen for their DNA by eating plants, so the very basis of most life on Earth depends on a few bacteria living on the roots of plants.

Since the early part of the 20th century when chemist Fritz Haber discovered that iron can be used on a large scale to fix nitrogen, iron has been recognized as playing an important role as a catalyst. Bacteria also use iron, but Holland has found that the way in which bacteria's iron is bonded may be the key to how nature can fix nitrogen without the pressures and temperatures the man-made process demands.

Holland originally set out to investigate the fundamental chemistry of iron compounds that have three atoms attached to each iron, but an unexpected chemical reaction shed light on nature's secret nitrogen formula. Since the compounds he was studying would likely react with air and water, Jeremy Smith, a postdoctoral fellow working with Holland, worked with the compounds in sealed boxes full of a gas that is usually considered safe because it rarely reacts with anything-nitrogen.

Not yet realizing that the nitrogen had reacted with the iron, Holland's team used X-ray diffraction, in which a computer-controlled device bombards the compound with X-rays, to inspect its structure. The X-rays diffracted around the atoms like sunlight bending through the crystals in a chandelier. A computer scans all the diffractions to create an image of the atoms' layout. The complex process is like trying to map the position of crystals in the chandelier by looking only at their scattered reflections.

When the computer had finished mapping the results, it had a surprise waiting.

"When Jeremy and I looked at the analysis, we saw a nitrogen molecule stuck to iron and being stretched apart," says Holland. Since the iron atoms in his model were bonded in only three places instead of the more usual six, "three-coordinate iron seems to be especially good for holding nitrogen tightly."

The iron atoms bind to a molecule of N2 (two atoms of nitrogen) floating in the air and stretch it, weakening the bond between the two nitrogen atoms. This makes the nitrogen more likely to link up with hydrogen to create ammonia (NH3)-the useful form with one nitrogen atom combined with three hydrogen atoms.

"We've shown that this type of iron can stretch nitrogen bonds, but now we want to see how this enzyme goes to the next step and breaks that bond," says Holland. Knowing how Nature so easily pulls nitrogen from the atmosphere may lead to a better understanding of how the ecology may balance itself, and may eventually provide a safer, more economical method of nitrogen fixing for the multi-billion-dollar fertilizer industry.

The research was funded by the University of Rochester.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University Of Rochester. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

University Of Rochester. "Researchers Uncover A Piece Of Nature's Secret Nitrogen Formula." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 October 2001. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/10/011016065858.htm>.
University Of Rochester. (2001, October 16). Researchers Uncover A Piece Of Nature's Secret Nitrogen Formula. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 25, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/10/011016065858.htm
University Of Rochester. "Researchers Uncover A Piece Of Nature's Secret Nitrogen Formula." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/10/011016065858.htm (accessed July 25, 2014).

Share This




More Matter & Energy News

Friday, July 25, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Europe's Highest Train Turns 80 in French Pyrenees

Europe's Highest Train Turns 80 in French Pyrenees

AFP (July 25, 2014) Europe's highest train, the little train of Artouste in the French Pyrenees, celebrates its 80th birthday. Duration: 01:05 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
TSA Administrator on Politics and Flight Bans

TSA Administrator on Politics and Flight Bans

AP (July 24, 2014) TSA administrator, John Pistole's took part in the Aspen Security Forum 2014, where he answered questions on lifting of the ban on flights into Israel's Tel Aviv airport and whether politics played a role in lifting the ban. (July 24) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Creative Makeovers for Ugly Cellphone Towers

Creative Makeovers for Ugly Cellphone Towers

AP (July 24, 2014) Mobile phone companies and communities across the country are going to new lengths to disguise those unsightly cellphone towers. From a church bell tower to a flagpole, even a pencil, some towers are trying to make a point. (July 24) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Algonquin Power Goes Activist on Its Target Gas Natural

Algonquin Power Goes Activist on Its Target Gas Natural

TheStreet (July 23, 2014) When The Deal's Amanda Levin exclusively reported that Gas Natural had been talking to potential suitors, the Ohio company responded with a flat denial, claiming its board had not talked to anyone about a possible sale. Lo and behold, Canadian utility Algonquin Power and Utilities not only had approached the company, but it did it three times. Its last offer was for $13 per share as Gas Natural's was trading at a 60-day moving average of about $12.50 per share. Now Algonquin, which has a 4.9% stake in Gas Natural, has taken its case to shareholders, calling on them to back its proposals or, possibly, a change in the target's board. Video provided by TheStreet
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins