Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Garbonzo beans, nitrogen, and King Corn

Garbanzo beans also known as chick peas might just save the planet. The bean has been cultivated for eight thousand years as a source of nutrition. The garbanzo is a legume that can fix atmospheric nitrogen. Corn is not capable of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere and therefore requires copious amounts of nitrogen fertilizer to grow. Much of the nitrogen fertilizer in the Midwest winds up travelling down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico where a massive dead zone now exists due to the excess nitrogen. If farmers rotate garbanzos and corn as alternate crops the garbanzos can replenish nitrogen into the soil. Legumes that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere are a source of high protein food. Proteins are amino acids that are chemical chains containing nitrogen. Carbohydrates do not have any nitrogen atoms. This is why corn ha significantly less protein than garbanzos or soy beans that are both legumes. Corn has approximately 6% protein, garbanzos 25% and soy a whopping 50%. All thanks to the legumes getting their nitrogen fix from the atmosphere.

All this talk of nitrogen has me thinking about Shell Oil who now claim in their advertising promotions that their gasoline is enriched with nitrogen. Shell has patented a detergent for gasoline that contains a large fraction of nitrogen. This detergent is able to withstand high temperatures in an engine and perform the task of removing gunk that could otherwise accumulate on engine parts such as valves and pistons. As nitrogen is a key ingredient in the gasoline additive Shell stations now have large banners extolling the virtues of nitrogen.

Ammonia also contains nitrogen and folks have used ammonia solutions for almost a hundred years as a detergent. Many household detergents use ammonia a key ingredient. Other types of detergents use surfactants, enzymes, oxidants, and abrasives. Ammonia is a pretty simple water soluble molecule. It is composed of one nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms. Amino acids in proteins are named after ammonia. In forming an amino acid, the ammonia molecule attaches to carbon backboned chemical and in the process loses one hydrogen atom as it bonds with a carbon atom. Ammonia synthesis using high pressure nitrogen and hydrogen was first accomplished in 1909 in Germany and this chemical became the backbone for the global fertilizer as well as explosives industry. Several nitrogen containing compounds are used as explosives, the scariest of which is TNT or trinitrotoluene. TNT has also been used as the acronym for record albums and comic book heroes. A Belgium airline also named itself TNT but I doubt that too many folks fly these unfriendly skies.

I spent the first twelve years of my working experience in the air separation business working for two companies. The first company was Air Products and the second Liquid Air. I managed to make a living by manufacturing oxygen, nitrogen and argon out of thin air. The industrial uses of nitrogen are widespread and just about any manufactured item ranging from Pringles Potato Chips to Intel Pentium Chip require nitrogen in their manufacturing process. The garbanzo bean should be inducted into the air separation hall of fame, I will likely be inducted into the air separation wall of shame for spending twelve years pretending to work.