Sunday, November 2, 2008

100 Years of Mixed Blessings

Nitrogen has been a pretty powerful tool, increasing crop yields on one hand and killing marine life on the other. But most of its impact wouldn't have been felt if it weren't for a 100-year-old process, the Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen.

The widespread availability of nitrogen created by the process allowed for the use of nitrogen in explosives and fertilizer (and sometimes both at the same time) and spawned a huge chemical industry that was able to discover new uses and applications for it. The problem now is to figure out how to meet the increased demand we've created.

Hi there, third world countries! Were you looking to develop your farming efforts so that you can actually feed your citizens?

In a way, it's kind of like oil. In the early 1900s, no one cared about it. Now, everyone wants a car and oil is a resource that affects almost all of us in our daily lives. Similarly, four of the world's leading environmental research centers think that nitrogen is going to become important, and I agree with them when you consider the increased demand for biofuels along with the growing needs of a globally increasing population.

I disagree when they say we'll have a nitrogen-based economy. Do we have an oil-based economy now? Yes, oil is a crucial part of the economy, but not the sole scale against which all other economic gains or losses are measured.

I could be wrong, though. What do you think the next big natural resource is going to be?

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The header image is adapted from a photo taken by Bill McChesney and used under a creative commons license.
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