Electrochemically-produced ammonia could revolutionize food production

Steven McIntosh wants to transform the way ammonia is produced. He hopes to create a viable alternative to the conventional method, which uses massive amounts of energy and emits harmful carbon dioxide. He's exploring a sustainable electrochemical method to efficiently drive the chemical reaction that produces ammonia.

Ammonia is a colorless gas made out of one nitrogen and three hydrogen atoms. The Haber-Bosch Process—created by German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch in the early 20th century—is credited with making mass food production possible, as ammonia's main industrial use is in agriculture as fertilizer.

The Haber Process, as it's widely known, combines nitrogen from the air with hydrogen derived from natural gas—comprised mostly of methane—in a chemical reaction that operates at very high pressure. In this conventional , iron, the catalyst used, easily "breaks" the hydrogen atoms. However, a huge amount of pressure is required to "push" the nitrogen onto the catalyst to spur the reaction. In addition, the process of generating hydrogen from methane emits large quantities of the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

Ammonia manufacturing consumes 1 to 2% of total global energy and is responsible for approximately 3% of global .

Considering the need for increased food production as a result of population growth—2 billion people will be added to the planet by 2050—it is clear that a sustainable method of producing ammonia must be created.

McIntosh puts it more succinctly: "The process of producing ammonia is critical for human survival, hasn't changed in more than one hundred years and is a big polluter. It's time for a change."

McIntosh, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Lehigh University, is exploring a method of producing ammonia that could spur such a change by using electricity to drive the chemical reaction. His method would eliminate the need to use high pressure to break the nitrogen bonds. And, because it derives hydrogen from water instead of natural gas, there would be no carbon dioxide emissions. Its main byproduct would be oxygen.

McIntosh was recently awarded a three-year collaborative research grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support this research. McIntosh will lead the Lehigh team as principal investigator in close collaboration with a team at the University of Pennsylvania, Professors Raymond J. Gorte, John M. Vohs and Aleksandra Vojvodic.

In a transformative paradigm shift McIntosh and his colleagues will investigate a method of producing ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen using a proton-conducting, ceramic, solid-oxide electrochemical cell. Their central hypothesis is that atmospheric-pressure, can be realized by electrochemically driving hydrogen onto catalytic surfaces that are normally limited by high nitride coverage.

"We plan to experiment using different catalysts, such as tungsten, that would normally be covered in nitrogen, upsetting the balance of hydrogen and nitrogen that is required for the reaction to take place," says McIntosh. "We will resolve this imbalance by applying an electrochemical potential to drive the hydrogen onto the catalyst surface and form ammonia."

The project will take advantage of the infiltration methods previously developed for electrode synthesis in Solid Oxide Fuel Cells which allows a wide range of materials to be used for the electrodes. The team will also explore mixed electronic-protonic conductors that can be added to the electrode to enhance the three-phase boundary where the electrochemical reaction can occur. The choice of electrocatalysts will be guided by complementary theoretical studies.

McIntosh describes the proposed method as adding an "additional knob"—electricity—to the ammonia production process.

"In this method, the hydrogen will come from water making it a kind of 'reverse fuel cell,' says McIntosh.

A fuel cell combines hydrogen and oxygen to make water and in the process creates electricity. The proposed reactor will utilize electricity to split water to provide the hydrogen required in ammonia synthesis, removing the need to consume natural gas and emit carbon dioxide. This project will result in small-scale demonstration cells that separate the hydrogen and oxygen atoms that make up water, using the and emitting the oxygen.

According to McIntosh, researchers have tried similar ammonia production methods but were able to produce very little ammonia. When it comes to ammonia, the ability to produce it at industrial scale is what matters.

That is why one of the main goals of the project is to produce a reasonable rate of . Another goal is to demonstrate what McIntosh says is the potential "modularity" of this technique.

Ultimately, this new way of producing ammonia could be part of a larger effort to make food production greener and more sustainable.

"Making ammonia by the conventional method requires a huge energy source which means it must be made in one location and then shipped—adding to the method's inefficiency," says McIntosh. "The hope is that someday could be produced on-site using a modular cell like the kind we are exploring, powered by a local electricity source such as solar panels or wind turbines."

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A green approach to making ammonia could help feed the world

Provided by Lehigh University
Citation: Electrochemically-produced ammonia could revolutionize food production (2018, July 9) retrieved 22 September 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2018-07-electrochemically-produced-ammonia-revolutionize-food-production.html
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Jul 09, 2018
So, (1) is it scaleable , and at what cost differential vs Haber process, (2) splitting H2O requires energy, and is the process to split water "In this method, the hydrogen will come from water making it a kind of 'reverse fuel cell,' says McIntosh.
I am a retired chemical engineer and when people review research as in this article, nothing makes sense until it is clearly presented in terms and statements that allow for a comparison versus existing technologies. Take, for example, hydrogen production from water with electricity from solar cells (or any other renewable energy source). Water is simply "burned hydrogen, with a certain heat of formation. So, the absolute minimum energy required to split water back into hydrogen and water requires the same amount of energy gained from creating water in the first place. Now no process is 100% efficient. So is the energy required to "un- burn water" is a multiple of the heat of formation of water, and so forth.

Jul 09, 2018
Sorry, didn't mean to send the same comment twice

Jul 09, 2018
Be a good trick if they can make it work. The Haber process requires seriously heavy engineering, scary temperatures and pressures. Being able to make ammonia at a local plant could offset economies of scale, with its distribution issues.

Jul 10, 2018
the catalyst used, easily "breaks" the hydrogen atoms.

That should probably read: "...the hydrogen molecules".

The idea of producing ammonia (quite literally) in the field would be a game changer. Especially for many of the impoverished countries that cannot afford to deliver fertilizer to every out-of-the-way farm.

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