Diamond Catalyst Ease Process Nitrogen To Ammonia Conversion Using UltraViolet Rays

Diamond catalyst reduces nitrogen to ammonia efficiently

9:50 AM, 1st July 2013
US Research News
Robert J Hamers, Chemist, UW-Madison.

MADISON, US: Nitrogen is a ubiquitous small-molecule gas that can be transformed into the valuable agricultural fertilizer ammonia. Plants perform the chemical reduction of atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia as a matter of course, but for humans it requires subjecting nitrogen to massive amounts of energy under high pressure in an industrial setting.

“The current process for reducing nitrogen to ammonia is done under extreme conditions. There is an enormous barrier you have to overcome to get your final product,” explained Robert J Hamers, Chemist, UW-Madison.

Iron is used as a catalyst for the reaction to reduce nitrogen to ammonia. Iron, combined with high temperature and high pressure, accelerates the reaction rate for converting nitrogen to ammonia by lowering the activation barrier that otherwise keeps nitrogen, intact. “Nitrogen is incredibly stable. It doesn’t do anything,” noted Hamers. One of the big obstacles, according to Hamers, is that nitrogen binds poorly to catalytic materials like iron.

Hamers and his team, turned to synthetic industrial diamond - a cheap, gritty, versatile material - as a potential new catalyst for the reduction process. Diamond, the Wisconsin team found, can facilitate the reduction of nitrogen to ammonia under ambient temperatures and pressures.

Like all chemical reactions, the reduction of nitrogen to ammonia involves moving electrons from one molecule to another. Using hydrogen-coated diamond illuminated by deep ultraviolet light, the Wisconsin team was able to induce a ready stream of electrons into water, which served as a reactant liquid that reduced nitrogen to ammonia under temperature and pressure conditions far more efficient than those required by traditional industrial methods.

“From a chemist’s standpoint, nothing is more efficient than electrons in water. With the diamond catalyst, the electrons are unconfined. They flow like lemmings to the sea,” said Hamers.

“The new diamond-centric approach can potentially fit a wide range of processes that require catalysis. This is truly a different way of thinking about inducing reactions that may have more efficiency and applicability. We’re doing this with diamond grit. It is infinitely reusable,” said Hamers.

The technique devised by Hamers and his colleagues, still has kinks that need to be worked out to make it a viable alternative to traditional methods. The use of deep ultraviolet light, for example, is a limiting factor. Inducing reactions with visible light is a goal that would enhance the promise of the new technique for applications such as antipollution technology.

© University of Wisconsin- Madison News

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