Wellington research could be a game changer for ammonia production

New Delhi: Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington researchers have discovered a new way of synthesising ammonia, with potential global environmental benefits.

The discovery could lead to more economically feasible and environmentally friendly production of a chemical that is currently essential to many industries—and could be part of the solution to developing an affordable, sustainable hydrogen economy.

“Globally, ammonia-based fertilisers are responsible for 50 percent of the world’s food production—ammonia is the single largest chemical industrial process on earth,” says one of the project leaders, Dr Franck Natali from the University’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences and the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.

“However, ammonia is currently produced using the Haber-Bosch process, which has high greenhouse gas emissions, is very energy intensive, and is only economically viable at 100s to 1,000s of tonnes production per day, which greatly increases overall operating and capital costs.”

Dr Natali, the University’s Associate Professor Ben Ruck, Emeritus Professor Joe Trodahl, and MacDiarmid Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Jay Chan have discovered how to break nitrogen bonds under mild conditions—room temperature and low pressure—which they say could revolutionise the way ammonia is produced.

“Because our method occurs at room temperature and uses low pressure, it is less energy intensive and has a lower greenhouse gas emission profile,” Dr Natali says. “This is the first step to making ammonia production for existing industries more flexible, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly.

“It’s a revolution that is urgently needed in order to reduce the massive carbon footprint created by the current industrial ammonia production process,” says Dr Natali.

This technique could also enable new alternative markets for ammonia, including supporting the development of a sustainable hydrogen economy.

“The hydrogen economy is already growing at a tremendous rate, as hydrogen is championed as a clean, green fuel source,” Dr Natali says. “However, current storage solutions for hydrogen are costly, hazardous, and energy intensive.

“For several reasons, ammonia is a good storage solution for hydrogen, especially as it emits no carbon—vital in the current climate crisis. Ammonia produced using our technique could utilise small, decentralised production plants that use renewable energy to function and provide a cost-efficient storage method for clean hydrogen.”

Dr Natali says the introduction of the United Nations’ Paris Agreement in 2016, which saw 195 countries agree to keep the increase in global temperature less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, has encouraged ambitious efforts to combat global warming. These signatories are looking to industry to demonstrate change and work towards a clean, circular economy.

“The technology we are developing has the potential to be a global game changer.”

Dr Natali has been working with the University’s commercialisation company Viclink to commercialise his research group’s discovery and build a prototype reactor to scale the synthesis of ammonia under industry relevant conditions. Viclink has created a special position, Innovator in Residence, to support Dr Natali in his work.

Dr Natali is excited about the future of the team’s discovery.

“Ammonia is not just the basic building block for fertiliser production, it’s also a key component of many products people use every day, as well as a key part of a potential solution to our global climate crisis. To think that we might have a positive impact on how such an important chemical is produced globally is really exciting to everyone in the team,” he says.