Shelley Minteer, a USTAR Professor in the Departments of Chemistry and Materials Science and Engineering, is flipping the switch on ammonia production. She recently published a new process to make ammonia – a valuable chemical and widely used fertilizer – in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.
Her novel method, using enzymes derived from nature, generates ammonia at room temperature. Most importantly, the chemical reaction generates a small electrical current.
“It’s a spontaneous process, so rather than having to put energy in, it’s actually generating its own electricity,” Minteer says.
The new approach is a vast improvement from other production methods that consume huge amounts of energy to achieve the high pressures and temperatures that drive the chemical reactions needed to make ammonia.
Although Minteer and former postdoc Ross Milton have only been able to produce small quantities of ammonia so far, their method could lead to a safer, non-toxic, and less energy-intensive source for ammonia.
“The ammonia production work earlier this year had a major issue. It was extremely oxygen-sensitive and could not work in air,” said Minteer. “We have since published a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society showing that we can use a redox switch protein to protect the nitrogenase catalysts from the oxygen in the air.”
Minteer’s lab is supported by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, the USDA, and several companies. Sources range from single investigator grants to a Department of Defense Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) grant of $7.25 million for five years. That proposal was funded in 2014 and will continue through 2019.
Additional projects in Minteer’s lab include looking at energy-harvesting technology such as adhesive patches that generate electricity from sweat to power sensors or drug delivery systems, and “smart” contact lenses or eye glasses that contain bio-batteries to power electronic displays like text messages or emails.