Archive | May 2012

Ammonia, you Toxic Chemical…

This blog post is written for Sciencegeist’s #ToxicCarnival

Ah Nitrogen (N2), thank you for helping me run my oxygen-sensitive reactions, you are 78% of the earth’s atmosphere, and when fixed you provide us with food. The last example that I am talking about is the Haber-Bosch process of taking inert N2 and converting it into reactive ammonia (NH3) that we put into fertilizer.

Fritz Haber and his synthetic process of fixing nitrogen is very relevant to our discussion of “toxic chemicals” because ultimately his process was discovered because Germany needed nitrates for making explosives during WWI.  Here is a great example of how a chemical and the ability to mass produce a chemical can be for good and bad. When asked about the duality of his discovery Haber said this:

“The interest of a wider circle has its source in the recognition that ammonia synthesis on a large scale represents a useful…way to satisfy an economic need. This practical usefulness was not the preconceived goal of my experiments. I was not in doubt that my laboratory work could furnish no more than a scientific statement of the foundations and a knowledge of the experimental equipment, and that much had to be added to this result in order to attain economic success on an industrial scale.”

Ammonia in fertilizer is one of the most important chemicals used today. The hydrogenation of nitrogen is catalyzed by a heterogeneous iron oxide catalyst at over 300 C and around 15 – 20 MPa.  This is a very energy intensive process using about 1.2% of the world’s energy. Yet, the massive production of ammonia through the Haber-Bosch process allows for the global food supply to keep up with the demands of human population growth. And in general, reactive forms of nitrogen not only provides the necessary nutrients for feeding the world, it is also responsible for providing us with the precursors for industrial goods such as cleaners, antiseptics, and nylon.

However we are beginning to see the detrimental effects to our environment such as ozone depletion in our excessive use of these reactive nitrogen reagents in fertilizer and the burning of fossil fuels. Yet, it is slightly more complicated than making overarching regulatory decisions to decrease reactive nitrogen use.  For example nitrogen that has leached into the ecosystem has enhanced plant growth in wetlands and riparian restoration and in turn account for substantial carbon sequestration and slowing of global warming. Another compounding factor of nitrogen management is that N2O slows decomposition and the release of CH4, but itself also contributes to the breakdown of the ozone. (reference)

So how can we better manage the nitrogen cycle? Nitrogen played a significant role during Haber’s lifetime and it is again an important element to understanding how we have changed its ecosystem, and make better decisions on how to manage it and take advantage of its benefits.

Further reading:
http://www.nature.com/scientificamerican/journal/v302/n2/full/scientificamerican0210-64.html
http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/2002/jul/fritzhaber/
Great plot of the production of ammonia over the last decade: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ammonia#Synthesis_and_production
http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v1/n10/full/ngeo325.html

What would happen to science if Mitt won the White House?

House Republican Press Conference on Health Care Reform
I definitely owe my readership this post from a few months back when I was doing a series on the Republican candidates and their viewpoints on scientific research.

My apologies for it being All Quiet on the Blog Front as I prepare to defend and apply for jobs. As a good friend reminded me earlier today: thinking about science policy does, on some strange level, make me happy.

Plus, Romney has pretty much snapped up the nomination and it’s about time we talked a bit about his science stance. Now also the reason that I hadn’t written about this earlier is that it’s pretty difficult to find his thoughts on funding scientific research. But then Paul Ryan and the House Republican Budget came out and this is what Romney said:

Romney: I’m very supportive of the Ryan budget plan. It’s a bold and exciting effort on his part and on the part of the Republicans and it’s very much consistent with what I put out earlier. I think it’s amazing that we have a president who three and a half years in still hasn’t put a proposal out that deals with entitlements. This President’s dealing with entitlement reform — excuse me — this budget deals with entitlement reform, tax policy, which as you know is very similar to the one that I put out and efforts to reign in excessive spending. I applaud it. It’s an excellent piece of work and very much needed.

There has been quite a bit discussed about the large slashes in corporate taxes and government programs that help the poor; but in addition to those detrimental cuts there are also many things in the budget that should be a concern to scientists and those involved in federally funded research.

The Obama Administration specifically listed the programs that involved in science, technology and innovation that the Ryan-Romney budget resolution would cut, with the House Republicans claiming massive duplications, bureaucratic barriers and red tape that are preventing job creation in these sectors.

The House Budget would cut programs within the Department of Energy’s Office of Science that provide the funding for future clean energy technology and advanced manufacturing initiatives. Specifically stating in the Path to Prosperity that renewable-energy interests are only for political gain.

The President has also stifled domestic energy production by blocking or delaying production both onshore and offshore, destroying jobs and idling American energy sources. The stimulus alone allocated $80 billion of taxpayers’ dollars specifically for politically favored renewable-energy interests.

But, in fact, this statement is not true at all, that currently domestic production is at its highest since 2003. This Budget Resolution will reduce the current efforts to develop a clean-energy economy at a time when our international competitors are ramping up their investments. China is the world’s top investor in renewable energy projects investing over $120 billion between 2007-2010.

The House Budget resolution would also be detrimental to agencies like the National Science Foundation (NSF) by cutting the budget of those agencies by almost 10% on average. Cuts to these programs would not only eliminate basic research but as well as education grants and fellowships that help graduate students and postdocs pursue careers in science. OSTP indicates that this would be $670 million below 2012 enacted levels equalling 2,000 fewer competitive grants. But, Path to Prosperity does state that:

This budget would continue funding essential government missions, including energy security and basic research and development, while paring back spending in areas of duplication or non-core functions, such as applied and commercial research or development projects best left to the private sector.

ok, so then my question is where are all of these overflowing private sector investments in research and development and why haven’t they hired me yet? I am a competitive candidate with extensive laboratory skills and I am excited to do cutting-edge research. But what am I doing? I am applying for postdocs. How are postdocs funded? Exactly.