USU biochemist is on the cutting edge of nitrogen research

Utah State University biochemist Dr. Lance Seefeldt says that life-giving nitrogen holds the key to sustaining life beyond nonrenewable fossil fuel energy. He and 16 other experts in nitrogen research gathered in Washington, D.C. to discuss the current field of nitrogen activation chemistry.

“Nitrogen, the gas that’s in the air we’re breathing, is actually composed of two nitrogen elements that are held together by a triple bond,” Dr. Seefeldt explains. “It turns out that triple bond is really difficult to break. And that’s why we talk about ‘activation’.

“What we’re doing is breaking that triple bond so that light can use that nitrogen to make proteins, to make DNA and RNA.”

Scientists a hundred years ago pioneered a process to break nitrogen’s ultra-strong bonds to enable production of fertilizer which radically grew the global food supply. But that process consumes about two percent of the world’s fossil fuel supply.

Dr. Seefeldt and his team have already pioneered efforts toward a clean and renewable light-driven process for converting nitrogen to ammonia, which is a primary component of fertilizer.

“If you think about trying to convert this process into a renewable way of doing the business, you really need to use light ultimately as your source of energy,” Dr. Seefeldt continues. “So that’s what we did about two years ago. We published some work in the journal Science where we showed that we could use light, coupled through these special nano materials that we have, plus the enzyme that came from the bacteria, we could actually use a light-driven process to do N/2 reduction.”

Dr. Seefeldt says demonstrating how sunlight or artificial light can power nitrogen fixation is a potential game-changer.

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