Brewing giant supports student fertilizer research – University of Copenhagen

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01 December 2011

Brewing giant supports student fertilizer research

Without the use of chemical fertilizers, earth could at best, feed but one-half of humanity. However, ammonia found in fertilizers is currently produced under high pressure and at extreme temperatures. For decades, chemists have sought a gentler way to produce tear-jerking fertilizer ammonia. Chemistry student Thorbjørn Juul Morsing of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Chemistry has now received a Carlsberg Commemorative Scholarship (Carlsberg Mindelegat) to investigate the possibility of producing ammonia at room temperature. .

By Jes Andersen

Seeks to copy gentle ways of bacteria

A gentler method of producing ammonia already exists - certain bacteria produce ammonia at normal pressures and temperatures – So Thorbjørn would like to try and detect which chemical tricks are at play in these microorganisms.
"The traditional method for producing ammonia is about smashing molecules to atoms and then assembling them in different ways. Bacteria deploy enzymes and this is far more elegant. Therefore, it would be cool to come closer to an understanding of what they do", explains Morsing, who in the coming months will attempt to produce and capture the compound diazene.

Fundamental research in unstable molecules

While diazene on a metal centre could prove to be an intermediate product for the bacterial method, one problem exists. The molecule that Morsing is attempting to create in the lab is notoriously unstable.
"This project is basic research, so there is always a greater chance for things to go wrong than for them to go the right way. But if it succeeds, and the diazene molecule is able to survive for just a short amount of time, it will be possible to research it, and possibly discover its role in the bacterial production of ammonia", says the graduate student, fully aware that there is a long way to shop shelves - even under optimal circumstances.
"The fun thing about this project is actually about producing molecules - even if the results prove to be of little use. Tangential little things always arise and these are in themselves worthwhile so that basic research itself doesn’t become too disappointing", believes Morsing. He adds that collaboration with supervisors and collaborators in the inorganic section of the Department of Chemistry is also something that keeps his spirits aloft when the experiments prove disappointing.

Large grant with many chemists at the receiving end 

The 75,000 kroner Carlsberg Commemorative Scholarship is one of the largest of scholarships offered to students in Denmark. The Danish scholarship is awarded annually to eight students in the fields of chemistry, biochemistry or biotechnology. Three students from the University of Copenhagen have received the much coveted scholarship this year.