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Ammonia Production is Hugely Detrimental to the Environment – Engineers Have Just Developed a Cleaner Method

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Ammonia: From Pollutant To Green Alternative

Ammonia has been discussed as an alternative to fossil fuels for applications hard to electrify, like shipping, trucking, or long-term energy storage. It has also been proposed as an intermediary step for the safe transport of hydrogen that can then be used in fuel cells.

Usually, producing ammonia relies on combining hydrogen with nitrogen gas under high pressure and temperatures, a process called the Haber-Bosch Process. Unfortunately, this method is polluting and not very energy efficient.

Instead, researchers at the University of Illinois, Texas Tech University, and General Ammonia Company have optimized a new method for producing ammonia that leverages ethanol with a charged lithium electrode.

This is not their first breakthrough, with previous works on electrocatalytic screens (a mesh of copper) for ammonia production, as well as “solar-to-fuel“ ammonia generators.

Lithium “Symphony” For Green Ammonia Production

The new ammonia production method works by combining nitrogen gas and a hydrogen-donating fluid such as ethanol with a charged lithium electrode.

This “Lithium-mediated ammonia synthesis” (LiMAS) works in 3 successive steps:

  1. First, a step called Li+ electrodeposition. This is done with current oscillations to ensure a high-quality solid-electrolyte interface (SEI) & voltage stability.
  2. Secondly, the nitrogen molecule adheres to lithium in a process called Li nitridation.
  3. Thirdly, Li3N protolysis adds the hydrogen atoms to the nitrogen, creating Ammonia (NH3)

 

The researchers describe the process as a “symphony,” as each step is regulated in such a way that the process stays efficient and keeps the material cycling for the next loop of chemical reactions.

“There are two loops that happen. One is regeneration of the hydrogen source and second is the regeneration of the lithium. There is a symphony in this reaction, due to the cyclic process.

What we did was understand this symphony in a better way and try to modulate it in a very efficient way, so that we can create a resonance and make it move faster.” – Singh, associate professor of chemical engineering at UIC.

The electrodeposition step is the most important innovation done in this research, as it greatly improves NH3 selectivity.

They also found two other factors that boost the productivity of ammonia generation:

  • Increasing the pressure of nitrogen gas up to 20 bar.
  • Using alcohol as the source of hydrogen.
    • 1-butanolas a hydrogen donor achieved the highest yield
    • Water is a much less efficient hydrogen donor, contrary to what was believed by the scientific community so far.

Altogether, these insights make high-pressure LiMAS (“Lithium-mediated ammonia synthesis”) more productive than both low-pressure LiMAS and the Haber-Bosch reaction.

Source: UIC Today

The Problems From Ammonia Production

Green Ammonia

We mentioned how ammonia production is likely a crucial step in decarbonizing the entire sector of the economy and creating a hydrogen economy. We discussed this in our article “Decarbonizing Global Shipping Lanes through Green Ammonia”.

This is especially true if the process is powered by green energy (including using green hydrogen), as other forms of ammonia are less eco-friendly.

This distinguishes green ammonia from other types of ammonia:

  • Grey/brown ammonia: produced from fossil fuels.
  • Blue ammonia is produced from fossil fuels but with carbon capture.
  • Pink ammonia (sometimes also called yellow ammonia): produced from nuclear energy.
  • Turquoise ammonia: produced from the pyrolysis of methane. This breaks down methane into hydrogen and solid carbon, later converting the hydrogen to ammonia. The solid carbon can be stored or used for applications like carbon fibers.

Today, most ammonia is produced for applications like fertilizer production and the chemical industry (dyes, explosives, etc.). It is mostly made by using fossil fuels, especially natural gas.

As a result, ammonia ranks second only to cement among industrial processes in terms of carbon emissions, making up 1.5% of total carbon emissions.

The high temperatures required by the Haber-Bosch process also do not help reduce the energy bill of ammonia production, with that energy itself often coming from fossil fuels, including high-carbon-emissions coal.

Industrializing LiMAs

While lithium is not the cheapest material, it is not extraordinarily expensive either and does not get consumed by the ammonia generation using high-pressure LiMAS.

So, combined with the high energy efficiency, this method is a low-cost source of ammonia.

The University of Illinois researchers estimate that if scaled up it would be economically viable

“the process would produce ammonia at $456 per ton, which is 60% cheaper than prior lithium-based approaches and other proposed green methods”.

Singh, associate professor of chemical engineering at UIC.

This would make that method of production in the same range as other green alternatives still in development, like for example Fuel Positive’s containerized ammonia generation system, aiming for CA$560/ton, or AmmPower's modular ammonia system with $360/ton for electricity cost alone (not counting maintenance and capital expenditures).

(We discuss these 2 companies and others in our article “The Other Hydrogen Fuel – Top 5 Green Ammonia Stocks”)

$456 per ton would also be in line with most of the world’s regional prices for ammonia, currently driven by fossil fuel-based production.

Ammonia prices are also exposed to wild fluctuation when natural gas prices go up, like in 2022 at the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

The scientists are already partnering with the General Ammonia Co. to pilot and scale up their lithium-mediated ammonia synthesis process. A pilot plant will be built in the Chicago area and the University of Illinois Office of Technology Management has filed a patent for the process.

Green Ammonia Companies

1. General Ammonia Company

The company partnering with the University of Illinois’ researchers is not publicly listed, but is “actively seeking investment“.

Accredited investors might be interested in directly contacting them and discussing the possible terms of investment in the company and its high-pressure LiMAS pilot plant.

2. NitroVolt

NitroVolt is another company looking to create ammonia using LiMAS, with a patent pending for the lithium-mediated ammonia synthesis process.

Source: NitroVolt

The Danish company is combining the LiMAS process with its proprietary flow cell system, allowing for a continuous, high-efficiency reaction.

The company’s research has been published in prestigious scientific publications, notably:

Source: NitroVolt

The company received its first investment on March 6th, 2024 from VC firm BackingMinds.

3. FuelPositive Corporation (NHHHF)

FuelPositive has created a modular/containerized green ammonia generation system. Its first target is the agricultural sector, allowing for on-site ammonia production with locally produced energy. The system can generate up to 300kg/day, 100 tons per year of ammonia for CA$950,000.

This makes it a system fit for farms up to 1,800 acres. With just 1.5 acres of land covered with solar panels, enough to power the ammonia generation.

Source: Fuel Positive

FuelPositive claims its system can produce ammonia for CA$560/ton,

The start-up is at an early stage, with full-scale production scheduled for 2025, and 30 orders confirmed so far, with the first delivery scheduled for March 2024.

The main strength of FuelPositive is the modularity of its technology, allowing for a more distributed approach and standardized mass production of its ammonia generation module.

The company is building a partnership with Cipher Neutron, which can produce hydrogen without any metal of the platinum group.

A similar partnership to use/license the LiMAS method for ammonia production could be established, as the company's strength is in its modular design, more than a proprietary ammonia generation technology.

While the primary focus is fertilizer production, the ammonia could be used to power farming engines with energy produced on-site, depending on the speed of adoption of ammonia/hydrogen-powered farming tools.

The decentralized and modular nature of FuelPositive systems could also make them a key element of a future ammonia economy. The fertilizer market can provide the gap for the company to grow until the use of hydrogen and ammonia is more widespread.

4. AmmPower Corp. (AMMPF)

AmmPower is similar to FuelPositive in that it provides modular ammonia generation systems, but at a larger scale, with its base module able to produce 4 tons/day. This puts the company more into the field of very large farms (10,000+ acres) or industrial operations like textiles, refrigeration, mining, pharmaceuticals, or semiconductors.

Source: AmmPower

The company is in the process of building its order book, with the near-term booking potential estimated at $30M, and sale prospects for 690 units from 52 countries.

The company estimates the electricity cost to be around $360/ton of ammonia.

The modularity of the system allows for a quick turnaround and deliveries, with less than a year compared to the 3-4 years of similar projects without the modular approach.

It is also working on technology to transform waste into ammonia, in a joint venture with CTEC Energy Sales USA.

Here too, other partnerships could be established to integrate the LiMAS ammonia process into the modular design.

To further the progress of ammonia into a hydrogen-ammonia economy, it is creating a dedicated subsidiary dedicated to cracking ammonia into hydrogen, which will look for additional funding separately.

By striking the scale that might fit most industrial usage, as well as very large farms, AmmPower is aiming for clients and companies with deeper access to capital than most.

Combined with ammonia cracking technology, this could allow it to scale up quickly following policies to push for the development of hydrogen as an energy carrier.

Jonathan is a former biochemist researcher who worked in genetic analysis and clinical trials. He is now a stock analyst and finance writer with a focus on innovation, market cycles and geopolitics in his publication 'The Eurasian Century".