Nitrogen is often considered an inert gas – it has a very high bond energy, so much energy is needed to overcome this strong triple bond.
Nitrogen is useful to us. Nitrogen containing compounds are used to make fertilizers, explosives and is found in every pharmacological drug. 80% of the air is made from the stuff but in order to use it we must first make it into ammonia (NH3) via the Haber – Bosch process. The Haber – Bosch process needs high temperatures (typically 300 oC), high pressures (250 times atmospheric pressure) and an iron catalyst.Figure 1: Flow diagram of the Haber Bosch process.
The iron catalyst allows the strong triple bond to be broken open and react with hydrogen. The nature of the Haber process involves high energy requirements (why?) and is not very environmentally friendly.
Enter zirconium. For the last few years (since about 2004) scientists have come to realise some zirconium compounds can act as effective catalysts in catalysing the reaction of nitrogen and hydrogen to make ammonia (A Gentler Route to Ammonia?) and they key benefit is the operating conditions – a mere 45oC and 1 atmosphere pressure.
Could this be the end of the Haber – Bosch process?