Producing Amonia

Ammonia production is one of the world’s single largest chemical industrial processes. Globally, ammonia-based fertilisers are responsible for 50 percent of food production and ammonia is also a key component in the manufacture of many everyday products. But the way ammonia is currently produced—using the Haber-Bosch process, which has remained unchanged since the early 1900s—is incredibly energy intensive, producing 2–3 percent of global carbon emissions. “Our discovery is the first step to making ammonia production for existing industries more environmentally friendly, cheaper, and flexible,” says Franck.

“Ammonia doesn’t contain any carbon as part of its chemical makeup. However, the hydrogen feedstock used in the production process is typically sourced from natural gas or coal. Producing ammonia using green hydrogen, and under the exceedingly mild conditions we discovered, has the potential to reduce emissions significantly.”

Franck has worked closely with Wellington UniVentures—the University’s commercialisation office—on potential applications, determining the shipping industry as a particular target. In 2018, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) committed to cut greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping by at least 50 percent by 2050. But existing clean energy technologies—such as electrochemical batteries and hydrogen fuel—do not have the energy density or ease of handling required to operate large shipping vessels. Ammonia is seen as the only zero-carbon fuel with sufficient energy density to tackle the huge emissions of heavy industries.

Associate Professor Franck Natali,Professor Joe Trodahl and Associate Professor Ben Ruck standing in TTR

In April 2021, a new ammonia reactor was installed at Te Herenga Waka. It allows the team to explore and optimise the synthesis process, ensuring its efficacy for industry use and to a larger scale. The team will also be able to evaluate how the ammonia production process aligns to industry standards, defining what the potential is to upscale the technology and what energy cost savings this new synthesis method has in comparison to the industry standard.

Wellington UniVentures supported the development of the research by validating the technology, protecting the intellectual property, and identifying and approaching industry partners. To better understand how to take his research to the next stage, Franck became Wellington UniVentures’ first Innovator in Residence, which helped him to realise the commercial potential of his research early on. In 2021, the company Liquium was created to take the research to market.

Franck has recently been accepted into the Breakthrough Energy Fellows Programme, which was initially set up in 2015 by Bill Gates and a coalition of private investors concerned about the impacts of climate change. The programme will support Franck and his team to develop, scale, and commercialise their technology, working towards a world of net-zero emissions.

Franck says he was very pleased to be accepted into the fellowship. “There was worldwide competition for the programme so, in that sense, it was completely unexpected. But our research is being recognised as something that really has the potential to change the world. It also highlights some of the fantastic work coming out of New Zealand.”

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