Ammonia soon from the plasma reactor

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Every year around 150 million tons of ammonia, an important basic chemical for fertilizer production, are produced. The Haber-Bosch process invented by Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch more than 100 years ago uses nitrogen and hydrogen. It’s very mature, but energy-intensive. The hydrogen is obtained almost exclusively from fossil natural gas.

Current estimates make ammonia production for around 1.8 percent of annual CO2 emissions responsible. Researchers from Korea Institute of Machinery and Materials (KIMM) in Daejeon.

Dae Hoon Lee’s team used a hot plasma from a water-nitrogen atmosphere for their new process. This created a cloud of electrically charged ions, from which hydrogen and nitrogen-oxygen compounds with a very large proportion of 99 percent nitrogen monoxide were formed. Nitrogen monoxide then reacted with the hydrogen – catalytically supported – to form ammonia. In contrast to the Haber-Bosch process, no high pressures of up to 200 bar and no high temperatures of around 400 degrees Celsius were required for this reaction. The researchers estimate the yield of this plasma catalysis process to be an impressive 95 percent.

“These promising results can be seen as a breakthrough on the way to sustainable and environmentally friendly ammonia production”, report the researchers in the journal “ACS Energy Letters”. Indeed, this plasma process has the potential for climate-friendly ammonia production. To do this, however, the electricity required to generate the plasma would have to come exclusively from renewable sources.

More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

More from MIT Technology Review

In addition, the first step is for other working groups to reproduce the Korean laboratory results. After that – as with many results that at first glance seem groundbreaking – the scaling of the plasma process to large-scale technical standards would be required. Should this succeed in cooperation with the industry in the coming years, ammonia production could gradually decrease to a largely CO2-neutral plasma process can be converted.


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