Nitrogen helped bring the world’s population to 8 billion. Quantum computing will ensure it doesn’t destroy our planet

When it comes to the climate emergency, we pay too much attention to one culprit. There’s another culprit that goes virtually unnoticed and is almost criminal: nitrogen.

Nitrogen is everywhere. As the fourth most common element in our bodies, it is in our blood, proteins and DNA. Every breath we take contains almost 80% nitrogen and plants thrive on the chemical element for their growth.

For most of history, nitrogen has been our friend. In the air, the energy of lightning during thunderstorms breaks down nitrogen and rain flows through the ground. In the soil, some bacteria, often found in crops and legumes, can also break down nitrogen.

This is called nitrogen fixation and is part of the nitrogen cycle. This is where plants get their nitrogen and produce the food early humans needed to survive. It is also why crops are rotated as it helps replenish the soil with nutrients.

Humans have been manipulating it for nearly 8,000 years. They used natural fertilizers to increase agricultural production, but when our population exploded, these natural sources of nitrogen weren’t enough. The process of applying manure to crops is tedious and inefficient. Nitrogen in manure often evaporates before it can be absorbed into the soil. Therefore, humans needed a new way to produce lots of nitrogen to feed the world.

Chemists had been trying to fix nitrogen since the early 1800s, but without success. It’s difficult because the triple bond that holds two nitrogen atoms together in the air we breathe is very strong. It needs something powerful, like lightning, to break it.

Fritz Haber

Then, in 1909, Fritz Haber, a young German chemist at the University of Karlsruhe, became the first person to synthesize ammonia in the laboratory. The discovery of him is considered one of the most important in modern history. Haber decided to use heat, pressure and a catalyst to reduce the energy required to break down the nitrogen. He succeeded, which allowed for the creation of ammonia, a nitrogen fertilizer, which is rich in nitrogen.

Thanks to nitrogen fertilizers, average crops have grown five times all over the world. In the United States, corn yields exploded from 1.6 t/ha to 8.5 t/ha in the previous century. Haber’s discovery means we can feed 8 billion people cultivating only 15% of the world’s total land area. Without it, we’d need to farm 50% of all continents without ice. His little wonder Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918.

Still, Haber uncorked the climate crisis.

Global ammonia production accounts for approx 450 Mt of CO2 emissions. This is 35% of the emissions of the entire chemical sector. If ammonia production were a country, it would be the 16th most polluting. Ammonia pollutes much more than steel and concrete in terms of tons of CO2 emitted per ton produced, with 2.4 tCO2/t.

The situation is getting worse. CO2 emissions aren’t the only downside to ammonia. Plants take up about half of the available nitrogen, the rest is released into the atmosphere as nitrous oxide. This is a greenhouse gas 300 times worse than CO2. It also pollutes the air and water into other compounds and contributes to land degradation and lower biodiversity.

Technology can come to the rescue.

The Haber process requires high temperature and high pressure, which requires a lot of energy. We use catalysts to minimize this but they are not efficient. They only work at high temperatures but the ammonia yield drops up to 40% in hot environments. You can improve yields with high pressure but, as with high temperatures, this requires a lot of energy.

Quantum computers can simulate the reaction at the molecular level and design better catalysts, which improve the efficiency of the Haber process. These catalysts can operate at lower temperatures and pressures, which has the double benefit of lower energy consumption and better yields.

Until recently, this approach was limited simply because there was no IT infrastructure to solve the required calculations.

With advances in quantum computing, that is bound to change. We need around 1,000 qubits to simulate the Haber process. Computer giant IBM plans to have 1,000-qubit quantum computers this year.

To date, researchers have proposed point-of-use sensors and machine learning models to understand when and how much to deliver nitrogen to the soil. The amount of data to analyze and the need to perform these calculations at the edge have so far prevented the widespread use of these technologies.

The technological barriers to using Machine Learning products are collapsing at an increasing rate as these solutions become more and more implementable on a larger scale.

Nitrogen is essential for life on Earth, but it is also a major contributor to climate change. The Haber process propelled our prosperity but is now problematic. Quantum computers and computational chemistry have the potential to make a significant contribution to the fight against climate change.

It is important to note that these technologies are still in their early stages of development and it will take time and investment to bring them to scale. However, the potential benefits are significant and it is worth investing in these technologies to help us tackle the climate crisis.

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