Australian researchers say they have unlocked new techniques to produce ammonia using renewable electricity that could render ammonia production using fossil fuels “obsolete.”
The discovery, achieved by scientists at Melbourne’s Monash University, has been detailed in a paper published in the prestigious journal Science.
The new ammonia production technique mirrors the electrolysis process used to extract hydrogen from water, a process powered by electricity and creates the potential to produce ammonia to be likewise powered using supplies of wind and solar.
It could be a significant development, given that many of Australia’s biggest projects – like those proposed by CWP Global and iron ore billionaire Andrew Forrest – are focused as much on green ammonia as green hydrogen, because of their potential to displace coal in coal generators and as a clean shipping fuel.
Most ammonia production is presently done using the Haber-Bosch process, developed by German scientists in 1909 and 1910, who were each subsequently awarded a Nobel Prize for their work.
The Haber-Bosch process has generally used fossil gas as a source of hydrogen, which is combined with nitrogen to produce ammonia. This technique is responsible for around 1.8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The research team, including chemistry professor Doug MacFarlane and collaborators Dr Alexandr Simonov and Dr Bryan Suryanto, says their new technique could render the Haber-Bosch process obsolete.
“An electrochemical route to ammonia could substantially lower the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the current thermal Haber-Bosch process,” the research paper says.
The researchers said that previous attempts to produce ammonia through the electrolysis process have been dependent on the use of ethanol as part of the chemical reaction, which tends to degrade.
The Monash University team discovered that replacing the ethanol with a “phosphonium salt” allowed the chemical reaction to occur. The salt proved to be resistant to the same degradation.
The discovery creates an opportunity for large-scale and efficient ammonia production using green electricity, displacing the need for fossil gas as a feedstock.
Ammonia has been identified as a key option for zero emissions fuels, as it can be produced using zero emissions supplies of hydrogen while being generally easier to transport and store than hydrogen.
Ammonia is already commonly used as a fertiliser, meaning that global supply chains, transport systems, and storage infrastructure are already well established.
In addition to ammonia being used as a fertiliser, it can be used directly as a fuel itself or as a storage medium for hydrogen, which can be later extracted for use in transport, energy storage, or as a source of industrial heat.
Dr Suryanto said the discovery was partly down to a bit of luck, having secured special permissions to progress research in Monash University laboratories during recent Covid-19 lockdowns.
The researchers were working in collaboration with Australian firm Verdant, which had been seeking new methods to produce bleach from seawater using electrolysis, as demand for disinfectants surged during the pandemic.
While in the laboratories, Dr Suryanto said he had experimented with the techniques to see if they could be adapted for ammonia production, finding that it allowed the green fuel to be produced at room temperature and high efficiency.
Professor MacFarlane, who was collaborating with Dr Suryanto on the research, described the discovery of the new process as an almost unbelievable breakthrough, which will be commercialised through a spin-off company Jupiter Ionics.
“It takes a long time to really believe it. I don’t know that we’ve yet really had a proper celebration. The launch of our spin-out company will possibly be the time that we genuinely celebrate all of this,” MacFarlane said.
“The technology opens a broad range of possibilities for future scale-up to very large production facilities for export, attached to dedicated solar and wind farms.”
MacFarlane added that the new technique had the added benefit of being scalable to both small and large applications, opening up a wide range of potential uses, including in green fertiliser production.
“You don’t need a huge chemical engineering setup. They can be as small as a thick iPad, and that could make a small amount of ammonia continuously to run a commercial greenhouse or hydroponics setup, for example,” MacFarlane said.
“It means that the distributed production of fertilisers becomes possible because the ammonia manufacturing unit is so small and simply constructed.”
Monash University’s research into new ammonia production techniques was assisted by a grant from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.
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