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Bionic Fertilizer

June 15, 2017

Scientists combine chemistry and biology to make fertilizer out of air and water.



Fertilizer out of thin air. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Plants need nitrogen to grow, and farmers often turn to chemical fertilizers to provide it. Now, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Harvard systems biologist Pamela Silver, chemist Daniel Nocera and their colleagues report on a new bionic method of fertilizing plants that combines chemistry and biology. Silver explains that they use electrocatalysts to split water molecules to produce hydrogen, which a soil organism then combines with nitrogen it pulls from the air to produce ammonia fertilizer.

PAMELA SILVER (Harvard University):

One of the over-arching goals is around how do we build systems that would be sustainable and sort of mimic what nature does, but do it better.


The system could provide the nitrogen needed to boost crop yields, without the high fuel and environmental costs of today’s chemical fertilizers. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Story by Bob Hirshon