For the past 100 years, the Haber-Bosch process has been used to convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, which is essential in the manufacture of fertilizer. Now researchers are making progress to developing a room temperature process that would make the process far cheaper and energy efficient. This would make fertilizer and thus food far cheaper.
They discovered that an iron complex combined with potassium was capable of breaking the strong bonds between the nitrogen (N) atoms and forming a complex with an Fe3N2 core, which indicates that three iron (Fe) atoms work together in order to break the N-N bonds. The new complex then reacts with hydrogen (H2) and acid to form ammonia (NH3)—something that had never been done by iron in solution before.
Despite the breakthrough, the Haber-Bosch process is not likely to be replaced anytime soon. While there are risks in producing ammonia at extremely high temperatures and pressures, Holland points out that the catalyst used in Haber-Bosch is considerably less expensive than what was used by his team. But Holland says it is possible that his team’s research could eventually help in coming up with a better catalyst for the Haber-Bosch process—one that would allow ammonia to be produced at lower temperatures and pressures.
At the same time, the findings could have a benefit far removed from the world of ammonia and fertilizer. When the iron-potassium complex breaks apart the nitrogen molecules, negatively charged nitrogen ions—called nitrides—are formed. Holland says the nitrides formed in solution could be useful in making pharmaceuticals and other products.
Science – N2 Reduction and Hydrogenation to Ammonia by a Molecular Iron-Potassium Complex The most common catalyst in the Haber-Bosch process for the hydrogenation of dinitrogen (N2) to ammonia (NH3) is an iron surface promoted with potassium cations (K+), but soluble iron complexes have neither reduced the N-N bond of N2 to nitride (N3–) nor produced large amounts of NH3 from N2. We report a molecular iron complex that reacts with N2 and a potassium reductant to give a complex with two nitrides, which are bound to iron and potassium cations. The product has a Fe3N2 core, implying that three iron atoms cooperate to break the N-N triple bond through a six-electron reduction. The nitride complex reacts with acid and with H2 to give substantial yields of N2-derived ammonia. These reactions, although not yet catalytic, give structural and spectroscopic insight into N2 cleavage and N-H bond-forming reactions of iron.