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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

Science Outlook – If Newt won the White House

What would science look like if Republicans won the White House in 2012? (Part 1 of 2)After hearing Former Speaker Gingrich’s promise that there will be colonies on the moon by 2020, and then the subsequent parodies by various comedians and Romney, I want to ask: what did you find yourself thinking?

Although I don’t believe that we should go back to the moon to settle colonies, Former Speaker Gingrich’s pandering to the space coast got me thinking about the foundation I had for the stress that with a republican in the White House we would lose all of the momentum in R&D we worked so hard to gain these last 3-4 years.  Where did I get this feeling? Because public debates rarely go into how candidates think about science and research and development.

Now a disclaimer: this post is all speculation based on limited research. I have merely looked into the past decisions, votes, and bills introduced by Gringrich (during the 104th Congress) and cherry picked the legislation that might hint at a passion and interest in science. This post is in no way guaranteeing that this will be the agenda that he will take.  I am only looking for patterns to help guide thinking about the candidates that are bombarding the news cycles.

And of course, the candidate will not be the only one who makes decisions on science, as if he does win the White House, it will also depend on who he will appoint to his cabinet positions and other key science positions. But again, this is just a small list to begin to think about the candidates from the viewpoint of what they can do for science, because R&D is not often talked about in national debates.

Space:
Gingrich perhaps was not just pandering to the space coast, but has always found an interest in space policy, since growing up during the space race. In an interview with The Space Review in 2006, he sees a lot of potential in large monetary prizes and tax incentives to encourage businesses and the private sector to be involved. Although many of these partnerships with the private sector are already happening and have been the efforts of the current (Obama) administration.

Energy and the Environment:
This is a bit difficult to tease out as there are instances where Newt has been a proponent of climate change going as far as doing a commercial with Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi in support of Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection and even authoring A Contract with the Earth, a book on green conservatism. However in recent months in during his campaign for the presidency he is on the same side of nearly every other republican candidate, expressing that the commercial was the “dumbest single thing I’ve done in the last few years”.

In addition, his quote about changing the EPA to the Environmental Solutions Agency (ESA) is a bit convoluted as he expresses the need for this agency to work with industry to build incentives rather than punishments. One specific example to keep an eye on is his proposal to incentivize “flex-fuel” vehicles.  However, these types of vehicles would need to broaden beyond just ethanol to not be seen as choosing ethanol as the “winner”.

Education:
Former Speaker Gingrich has a very strong commitment to education. He knows that prosperity and national security are tied into education. Although he does rely heavily on the charter school system, but as does Secretary Duncan (interview with Meet the Press).

As an additional disclaimer, this post in no way endorses Newt Gingrich. I just wanted to have a discussion about the speculations on the consequence of science if republicans were to win the White House. Did you catch any other articles I should take a look at? Tomorrow: Mitt Romney, what is the outlook for science if he wins the White House?

Advice on how to think like a science policy analyst?

What questions do science policy analysts ask?

I feel that by now, after several years of graduate school, (not going to say how many because then you will anticipate how many I have left, and already, I am my own worst enemy for ridiculous expectations) I can think like a chemist. I generally know what questions to ask or avenues to pursue when a reaction doesn’t work or the interesting questions/next steps after reading a journal article in my field.

so how about science policy analysts?