BOZEMAN – Converting nitrogen into a form that people and plants can use can exact a heavy toll on the Earth, but a team involving two Montana State University researchers has discovered a much more eco-friendly method – a finding that has implications for food and alternative fuel production.
The new method combines light, nanomaterials and a natural enzyme that turns nitrogen into ammonia.
Explaining their finding in one of the world's most prestigious scientific journals, MSU professor John Peters, graduate student Stephen Keable and their colleagues recently announced that sunlight or artificial light can break down nitrogen with a much smaller carbon footprint than a century-old process used by industry to produce the ammonia found in fertilizers.
The Haber-Bosch process greatly increased the world's food supply, but it uses high temperatures, high pressure and fossil fuels to convert nitrogen into ammonia, according to the research team. A second process occurs naturally when bacteria in the soil remove nitrogen gas from the air and turn it into ammonia.
The new discovery could have large implications, Peters said. Not only does it relate to food production, but it has applications for alternative fuels. It provides fundamental knowledge about nitrogenase, the bacterial enzyme that converts nitrogen into ammonia.
The research team published its discovery in "Science," an international, peer-reviewed journal published weekly by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Peters is a professor in MSU's Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Letters and Science. Keable, originally from Minnesota, is a doctoral student in Peters' laboratory.
"This research is important because industrial nitrogen fixation to produce fertilizer consumes approximately 1 to 2 percent of the total annual world energy output," Keable said. "By improving our understanding of the mechanisms of biological nitrogen fixation, we may be able to mimic nature and produce fertilizer."
Keable's involvement in the newly published study built on work he did in Peters' laboratory, first as a technician and then as a doctoral student who received a 2015 Graduate Student Research award from the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. The award allowed Keable to conduct research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee as part of an overall effort to better understand the mechanisms of enzymes important for producing bioenergy.
Peters, among other things, heads up the Department of Energy-supported Biological Electron Transfer and Catalysis (BETCy, pronounced "Betsy") Energy Frontier Research Center based at MSU. He and 10 other principal investigators from six universities across the country and the National Renewable Energy Lab launched the center in 2014. It is one of 32 DOE centers in the United States.
Some of the colleagues in that center were members of the team that published their findings in "Science." Besides Peters and Keable, the authors were Katherine Brown and Paul King from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado; Derek Harris, Andrew Rasmussen, Nimesh Khadka and Lance Seefeldt from Utah State University in Logan; and Molly Wilker, Hayden Hamby and Gordana Dukovic from the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Contact: John Peters, (406) 994-7812 or firstname.lastname@example.org