Sunday, July 28, 2019

"How Making One Chemical Created the Modern World"

The TL:DR is making a pun, both Alfred Nobel and Kristian Birkeland got deep into the boom-boom quality of nitrogen.
Now it may end up being the energy carrier that displaces natural gas.

From Discover:

TL;DR: Nitrogen is one of life’s most precious resources. Discovering how to industrially produce it (as ammonia) let our population break free of natural limits, and explode.
An amazing fifty percent of the nitrogen atoms now found in human tissues originated inside an industrial machine invented relatively recently. These molecules form our DNA, our amino acids, and countless other things essential to life. But how did this bizarre situation come about?

The Haber process
In the 21st Century, our technology has helped to create us. But this same industrial machine could be said to have created the modern world too, as its development let our population skyrocket from 1.6 to 7.6 billion people in under 100 years, by producing enough fertiliser to grow the food needed to sustain all that extra life.

The machine is called the ‘Haber process’ and at first glance it seems like a bit of a contradiction.

Nitrogen is everywhere, but we can’t use most of it
Nitrogen is a colourless, tasteless, odourless gas. Human beings cannot  see it or smell it, and our species might have evolved that way because it makes up an overwhelming 78% of the air around us.
We inhale it in every breath alongside oxygen (which makes up 21% of our air). But unlike oxygen, we exhale nitrogen straight back out again.

The contradiction is that every cell in our bodies (and every cell of every living creature) desperately needs nitrogen. Plants in particular have an insatiable need and struggle to get it, even though we are all surrounded by it. Just like someone dying of thirst while stranded in the middle of the ocean, life on Earth is surrounded by nitrogen it can’t use.
Life on Earth is a bit like Tom Hanks in Castaway (2000)
Nitrogen’s triple bond Nitrogen is the seventh most abundant element in the Milky Way, and like many elements it is formed as a residue from an exploding star.
The problem is that most nitrogen atoms are tightly bonded with other nitrogen atoms using three of its seven electrons, creating what is known in chemistry as a powerful triple bond (N≡N).

As I was writing this page, I had to do a bit of a refresher on High School chemistry. I had a cranky old teacher who preferred talking about his sailing adventures from 40 years ago rather than making chemistry interesting. It was not my best subject!

Concepts like a triple bond in a colourless, odourless gas are pretty abstract. It’s part of what makes some sciences like chemistry difficult for us. When we can’t directly touch, hear, see, or smell something, it’s difficult to build the mental frameworks needed to understand it.

A well-kept secret
I found out that it took until 1772 for human beings to discover the existence of nitrogen in the first place.
Let’s unpack that.

Our species has existed for 350,000 years, and it took us almost our entire existence thus far to discover a gas that we inhale with every breath. At the end of the day we’re a species that evolved to hunt, gossip, invent things, tell stories, and have sex. But when we finally did work out the concept of nitrogen (and it’s triple bond) we conquered the Earth.

Severing the triple bond....