So there’s an acute fertilizer shortage. The big problem is a lack of nitrogen which, although it accounts for most of the atmosphere (78.1 percent), is notoriously tough to “fix,” since it’s got those pesky triple bonds. One of the unsung heroes of modernity is the Haber process, which makes nitrogen-rich fertilizer by heating, under high heat and pressure, nitrogen and hydrogen.
The Haber process now produces 100 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer per year, mostly in the form of anhydrous ammonia, ammonium nitrate, and urea. 3-5% of world natural gas production is consumed in the Haber process. This fertilizer is responsible for sustaining one-third of the Earth’s population.
Ok, so the Haber process (which was originally invented to help Germany produce explosives during WWI) requires lots of energy to fix nitrogen. But here’s my naive question (and keep in mind that I’m really ignorant when it comes to fertilizer and nitrogen fixation):
Lots of different prokaryotes fix nitrogen for us, most famously the legumes with their symbiotic bacteria. What’s their enzymatic secret? Why can these single celled creatures break apart the strong bonds of nitrogen but we can’t? (Unless we consume huge amounts of energy.) I mean, if we could find a way to emulate the genius of natural selection, we could instantly eliminate a significant share of natural gas consumption. That seems like a scientific breakthrough worth investing in.* So what’s the stumbling block?
*Of course, I know it’s much more important to give Americans a summer without a gas tax.