Stanford researchers make ammonia from water droplets and nitrogen from the air

Stanford researchers have discovered a simple and environmentally sound way to make ammonia from tiny water droplets and nitrogen from the air.

The research team zeroed in on a catalyst – that they suspected could help blaze a chemical pathway toward ammonia – which consisted of an iron oxide, magnetite, and a synthetic membrane invented in the 1960s that is composed of repeating chains of two large molecules.

The researchers applied the catalyst to a graphite mesh that  Xiaowei Song, a postdoctoral scholar, incorporated into a gas-powered sprayer. The sprayer blasted out microdroplets in which pumped water (H2O) and compressed molecular nitrogen (N2) reacted together in the presence of the catalyst. Using a device called a mass spectrometer, Song analysed the microdroplets’ characteristics and saw the signature of ammonia in the collected data.

“We were shocked to see that we could generate ammonia in benign, everyday temperature-and-pressure environments with just air and water and using something as basic as a sprayer,” said study Senior Author Richard Zare, the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science and a professor of chemistry in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences.

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