Looking for Options to Sustainably Fixate Nitrogen. Are Molecular Metal Oxides Catalysts a Viable Avenue?

Rebeca González-Cabaleiro*, Jake A. Thompson, Laia Vilà-Nadal

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

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Fast and reliable industrial production of ammonia (NH3) is fundamentally sustaining modern society. Since the early 20th Century, NH3 has been synthesized via the Haber–Bosch process, running at conditions of around 350–500°C and 100–200 times atmospheric pressure (15–20 MPa). Industrial ammonia production is currently the most energy-demanding chemical process worldwide and contributes up to 3% to the global carbon dioxide emissions. Therefore, the development of more energy-efficient pathways for ammonia production is an attractive proposition. Over the past 20 years, scientists have imagined the possibility of developing a milder synthesis of ammonia by mimicking the nitrogenase enzyme, which fixes nitrogen from the air at ambient temperatures and pressures to feed leguminous plants. To do this, we propose the use of highly reconfigurable molecular metal oxides or polyoxometalates (POMs). Our proposal is an informed design of the polyoxometalate after exploring the catabolic pathways that cyanobacteria use to fix N2 in nature, which are a different route than the one followed by the Haber–Bosch process. Meanwhile, the industrial process is a “brute force” system towards breaking the triple bond N-N, needing high pressure and high temperature to increase the rate of reaction, nature first links the protons to the N2 to later easier breaking of the triple bond at environmental temperature and pressure. Computational chemistry data on the stability of different polyoxometalates will guide us to decide the best design for a catalyst. Testing different functionalized molecular metal oxides as ammonia catalysts laboratory conditions will allow for a sustainable reactor design of small-scale production.

Original languageEnglish
Article number742565
Number of pages7
JournalFrontiers in Chemistry
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • catalyst—N
  • compuatational chemistry
  • Haber Bosch
  • metabolic modelling
  • nitrogen fixation
  • nitrogenase
  • polyoxomatalate


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