With climate change concerns front of mind, the world is desperate to get to net-zero carbon output as soon as possible. While direct electrification is becoming popular for regular passenger cars, it’s not yet practical for more energy-intensive applications like aircraft or intercontinental shipping. Thus, the hunt has been on for cleaner replacements for conventional fossil fuels.
Hydrogen is the most commonly cited, desirable for the fact that it burns very cleanly. Its only main combustion product is water, though its combustion can generate some nitrogen oxides when burned with air. However, hydrogen is yet to catch on en-masse, due largely to issues around transport, storage, and production.
This could all change, however, with the help of one garden-variety chemical: ammonia. Ammonia is now coming to the fore as an alternative solution. It’s often been cited as a potential way to store and transport hydrogen in an alternative chemical form, since its formula consists of one nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms.However, more recently, ammonia is being considered as a fuel in its own right.
Let’s take a look at how this common cleaning product could be part of a new energy revolution.
Science is built on reproducibility; if someone else can replicate your results, chances are pretty good that you’re looking at the truth. And there’s no statute of limitations on reproducibility; even experiments from 70 years ago are fair game for a fresh look. A great example is this recent reboot of the 1952 Miller-Urey “primordial soup” experiment which ended up with some fascinating results.
At the heart of the Miller-Urey experiment was a classic chicken-and-the-egg paradox: complex organic molecules like amino acids and nucleic acids are the necessary building blocks of life, but how did they arise on Earth before there was life? To answer that, Stanley Miller, who in 1952 was a graduate student of Harold Urey, devised an experiment to see if complex molecules could be formed from simpler substances under conditions assumed to have been present early in the planet’s life. Miller assembled a complicated glass apparatus, filled it with water vapor and gasses such as ammonia, hydrogen, and methane, and zapped it with an electric arc to simulate lightning. He found that a rich broth of amino acids accumulated in the reaction vessel; when analyzed, the sludge was found to contain five of the 20 amino acids.
The Miller-Urey experiment has been repeated over and over again with similar results, but a recent reboot took a different tack and looked at how the laboratory apparatus itself may have influenced the results. Joaquin Criado-Reyes and colleagues found that when run in a Teflon flask, the experiment produced far fewer organic compounds. Interestingly, adding chips of borosilicate glass to the Teflon reaction chamber restored the richness of the resulting broth, suggesting that the silicates in the glassware may have played a catalytic role in creating the organic soup. They also hypothesize that the highly alkaline reaction conditions could create microscopic pits in the walls of the glassware, which would serve as reaction centers to speed up the formation of organics.
This is a great example of a finding that seems to knock a hole in a theory but actually ends up supporting it. On the face of it, one could argue that Miller and Urey were wrong since they only produced organics thanks to contamination from their glassware. And it appears to be true that silicates are necessary for the abiotic generation of organic molecules. But if there was one thing that the early Earth was rich in, it was silicates, in the form of clay, silt, sand, rocks, and dust. So this experiment lends support to the abiotic origin of organic molecules on Earth, and perhaps on other rocky worlds as well.
Human activity may be the main cause of climate change, but all these cows milling and mooing about don’t help, either. Everyone knows that cows produce methane-laden flatulence, but there’s another problem — their urine contains ammonia. The nitrogen leeches into the soil and turns into nitrous oxide, which is no laughing matter. So what’s the answer, giant diapers? No, just train them to use a toilet instead of the soil-let.
A pair of researchers from the University of Auckland traveled to a research institute’s farm in Germany with the hope of training a group of 16 calves to do their business in a special pen. The “MooLoo” is painted bright green and carpeted with artificial turf so it’s less weird for the cows. First they left the calves in the pen until they peed, and then gave it a reward of sugar water. From there, they started extended the animals’ distance from the MooLoo. Whenever the calves thought outside the box, they would be sprayed with water for three seconds. The results are kind of surprising: within an average of 15-20 urination sessions, 11 of the 16 cows had been trained successfully and were using the MooLoo 75% of the time. Watch a calf earn some sugar water after the break.
German cows mostly live in barns, but millions of other cows spend much of their time outside. So, how would that work? The researchers believe that cows could be trained to go when they gather for milking time. Makes sense to us, but how do you train cows on a large scale? Maybe with bovine VR?
There’s a major push now to find energy sources with smaller carbon footprints. The maritime shipping industry, according to IEEE Spectrum, is going towards ammonia. Burning ammonia produces no CO2 and it isn’t hard to make. It doesn’t require special storage techniques as hydrogen does and it has ten times the energy density of a modern lithium-ion battery.
You can burn ammonia for internal combustion or use it in a fuel cell. However, there are two problems. First, no ships are currently using the fuel and second most ammonia today is made using a very carbon-intensive process. However it is possible to create “green” ammonia, and projects in Finland, Germany, and Norway are on schedule to start using ammonia-powered ships over the next couple of years.
In America, corn syrup is king, and real sugar hovers somewhere around prince status. We’re addicted to corn, and corn, in turn, is addicted to nitrogen. A long time ago, people figured out that by rotating crops, the soil will stay nutrient-rich, which helps to an extent by retaining nitrogen. Then we figured out how to make nitrogen fertilizer, and through its use we essentially doubled the average crop yield over the last hundred years or so.
Not all plants need extra nitrogen. Legumes like beans and soybeans are able to make their own. But corn definitely needs nitrogen. In the 1980s, the now-chief of agriculture for Mars, Inc. Howard-Yana Shapiro went to Mexico, corn capital of the world, looking for new kinds of corn. He found one in southern Mexico, in the Mixes District of Oaxaca. Not only was this corn taller than American corn by several feet, it somehow grew to these dizzying heights in terrible soil.
So if we already have nitrogen fertilizer, why even look for plants that do it themselves? The Haber-Bosch fertilizer-making process, which is an artificial form of nitrogen fixation, does make barren soil less of a factor. But that extra nitrogen in ammonia-based fertilizer tends to run off into nearby streams and lakes, making its use an environmental hazard. And the process of creating ammonia for fertilizer involves fossil fuels, uses a lot of energy, and produces greenhouse gases to boot. All in all, it’s a horrible thing to do to the environment for the sake of agriculture. But with so many people to feed, what else is there to do?
Over the last decade, the UC Davis researchers use DNA sequencing to determine that the mucus on the Sierra Mixe variety of the plant provides microbes to the corn, which give it both sugars to eat and a layer of protection from oxygen. They believe that the plants get 30-80% of their nitrogen this way. The researchers also proved that the microbes do in fact belong to nitrogen-fixing families and are similar to those found in legumes. Most impressively, they were able to transplant Sierra Mixe corn to both Davis, California and Madison, Wisconsin, and have it grow successfully, proving that the nitrogen-fixing trick isn’t limited to the corn’s home turf. Now they are working to identify the genes that produce the aerial roots.
One Step in a Longer Journey of Progress
We probably won’t be switching over to Sierra Mixe corn anytime soon, however. It takes eight months to mature, which is much too slow for American appetites used to a three-month maturation period. If we can figure out how to make other plants do their own nitrogen fixation, who knows how far we could go? It seems likely that more people would accept a superpower grafted from a corn cousin instead of trying to use CRISPR to grant self-nitrogen fixation, as studies have shown a distrust of genetically modified foods.
The issue of intellectual property rights could be a problem, but the researchers started on the right foot with the Mexican government by putting legal agreements in place that ensure the Sierra Mixe community benefits from research and possible commercialization. We can’t wait to see what they’re able to do. If they’re unable to transplant the power of self-fixation to other plants, then perhaps there’s hope for improving the Haber-Bosch process.
Lasers are such a fundamental piece of technology today that we hardly notice them. So cheap that they can be given away as toys and so versatile that they make everything from DVD players to corneal surgery a reality, lasers are one of the building blocks of the modern world. Yet lasers were once the exclusive province of physicists, laboring over expansive and expensive experimental setups that seemed more the stuff of science fiction than workhouse tool of communications and so many other fields. The laser has been wildly successful, and the story of its development is an intriguing tale of observation, perseverance, and the importance of keeping good notes.
When you consider that almost every single cell in your body has more than a meter of DNA coiled up inside its nucleus, it seems like it should be pretty easy to get some to study. But with all the other cellular gunk in a crude preparation, DNA can be quite hard to isolate. That’s where this cheap and easy magnetic DNA separation method comes in. If it can be optimized and tested with some help from the citizen science community.
Commercial DNA separation methods generally involve mixing silica beads into crude cell fractions; the DNA preferentially binds to the silica, making it possible to mechanically separate it from the rest of the cellular junk. But rather than using a centrifuge to isolate the DNA, [Justin] from The Thought Emporium figured that magnets might do a better job. It’s not a new idea — biotech companies offer magnetic separation beads commercially, but at too steep a price for [Justin]’s budget. His hack comes from making magnetite particles from common iron compounds like PCB etchant and moss killer, and household ammonia cleaner. The magnetite particles are then coated with sodium silicate solution, also known as waterglass. The silica coating should allow the beads to bind to DNA, with the magnetic core taking care of separation.
[Justin] was in the process of testing his method when he lost access to the needed instruments, so he’s appealing to the larger science community for help optimizing his technique. Based on his track record of success in fields ranging from satellite tracking to graphene production, we’ll bet he’ll nail this one too.