Making fertilizer for farms requires turning nitrogen into ammonia. The current industrial process uses extreme pressure and temperature to produce the chemical reaction and that process takes a lot of energy. Some 2 percent of the world’s electrical output goes into turning nitrogen into ammonia.
For decades scientists have been looking or a cheaper and easier way to do it. University of Wisconsin-Madison chemist Robert Hamers found a way: with diamonds.
Hamers didn’t buy them in the Diamond District, instead he used ground-up industrial diamonds, which are cheap. He coated the diamond particles with hydrogen, and misted them with water. He then bathed the particles and the water in ultraviolet light. That released electrons that mingled with the water, which served as a reactant that, when exposed to nitrogen, turned it into ammonia.
Hamers’ process doesn’t need those extreme pressures and temperatures, so that’s a big plus for doing it on an industrial scale. The down side is the ultraviolet light: that takes energy to produce, though it might ultimately be less, in total, than what is used now.
Other chemicals could benefit from this process as well. There are many nitrogen compounds used in industry that, if made with artificial diamonds, would be less expensive to produce.
Hamers published his experiment in Nature Materials.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons