A Pounds 10 million laboratory for research into the mysteries of nitrogen fixation, a fundamental process that helps to ensure the growth of healthy plants, will open next week at the John Innes Centre, Norwich.
Every year farmers in the United Kingdom spend about Pounds 450 million on nitrogenous fertilizer to ensure healthy crops. Worldwide, 60 million tonnes of nitrogen is used as fertilizer. A further 90 million tonnes is introduced into soils through the action of bacteria which convert nitrogen into fertilizer. In agriculture, the most important contributions result from the action of these bacteria in conjunction with legumes such as peas, beans, lentils and clover.
Barry Smith, one of the directors of the new laboratory, says that scientists aim to get a more detailed understanding of the genetic mechanisms that underpin the nitrogen fixation process. In future it may be possible to insert genes into other plants to improve their ability to fix nitrogen. "Nothing so far has told us it is impossible but achieving this feat is going to take a very long time, perhaps 50 years," he says.
In the natural environment, nitrogen fixation takes place at atmospheric pressure and temperature. Industrial fixation requires temperatures of 300 degrees centigrade and pressures of 300 atmospheres. While Professor Smith thinks it is unlikely this process can be much improved, research at John Innes could lead to low-cost methods of industrial manufacture.
The research will look at the energy requirements of the process. For example, researchers are uncertain why it is that for every nitrogen molecule converted to ammonia a molecule of hydrogen is released.
Professor Smith says: "We can speculate that removing the need to release the hydrogen could greatly improve the efficiency of the process but we first need to know exactly why it is happening. We may be on a losing wicket - nature after all has taken a very long time perfecting the process."
The laboratory will incorporate the research strengths of the former nitrogen fixation laboratory at Sussex University and will include expertise in areas such as molecular biology, inorganic chemistry and biochemistry.