Key Trends That Will Influence The Future of Ammonia Production

Ammonia, which is known as anhydrous ammonia in pure form, is among the most widely produced and used chemicals globally. Ammonia is also produced in the human body and is an essential building block for making proteins and other complex molecules, and is also found in nature as it occurs in soil from bacterial processes, and is produced when animals, plants, and animal wastes decay.

Ammonia is highly corrosive, and the severity of health effects depends on the dose, exposure, and duration of exposure. Exposure to high concentrations of ammonia in air can lead to instant burning of nose, eyes, throat, and respiratory tract, and can eventually result into lung damage, blindness, or death.

Ammonia is a highly used chemical and an integral part of the industries, primarily used in agriculture. According to the New York State Department of Health, almost 80% of the ammonia production is consumed as fertilizer in agriculture. The colorless irritating gas is also used as a refrigerant gas in water supplier purification and in manufacturing plastics, dyes, pesticides, explosives, and a wide range of chemicals. Ammonia is used in numerous household and industrial-strength cleaning solutions, however cleaning solutions for industrial use are composed of high amounts of ammonia, and thereby, can cause irritation and burns. Crammed with myriad benefits, ammonium is increasingly gaining ground as an asset in a wide range of industries, but its production leads to CO2 emission and significantly adds to climate change. Owing to huge applications of ammonia in diverse industries, the demand for ammonia is skyrocketing, and the manufacturers are seeking new ways to produce ammonia to meet its ever increasing demand.

The world is rapidly witnessing different trends on the back of advancing technology in the chemical industry, and ammonia isn’t left behind, as manufacturers are increasingly focusing on environment friendly ammonia production processes to address the various concerns around climate change.

Key Trends that will Influence the Future of Ammonia Production

Small-Scale Ammonia Production Becoming The Big Thing in United States

In the recent years, the US has witnessed wide changes in terms of ammonia production plants, as many world-scale ammonia plants have been built, relocated, and restarted across the region. The most recent ammonia mega-project started operations at Freeport in Texas in April 2018, with no further plans of any new ammonia plants construction. But, the US small level project developers and ammonia start-ups have changed their strategy and are continuously announcing plans of building new ammonia plants, owing to the persisting low natural gas prices. Project developers are paving the way for a new trend in the ammonia production sector by planning construction of regional-scale ammonia projects with expected production capacities of only one tenth the industry standard.

The projects will be based on fossil feedstock but are expected to set new emissions and efficiency standards for small-scale ammonia plants. These upcoming projects demonstrate new business models, which are capable of greatly changing the future industry landscape for sustainable ammonia technologies. The emerging trend of developing smaller ammonia plants is expected to capture the United States in the forthcoming years. These projects may lack in becoming the most efficient ones but will be sufficiently big to cater to a regional market, and thereby, represent a feasible business model. Moreover, small scale plants will be comparatively cost effective, and may actually be fundable, eliminating many restrains associated with large-scale projects.

Some other ammonia production trends that are likely to capture the amoonia manufacturers worldwide include:

  • According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States, the significance of natural gas, which is accountable for almost two-thirds of the production capacity of ammonia, should not be understated in terms of nitrogen fertilizer production. The organization has recently projected that most of the upcoming ammonia production projects could be based on natural gas in the upcoming years. The rapidly blooming shale gas production in the United States and subsequent availability is leading to decline in natural gas prices in the United States and this is projected to have an impact on the global fertilizer industry.  
  • Another trend gaining traction among ammonia producers is electrochemical synthesis of ammonia, which carries out ammonia synthesis from nitrogen and hydrogen through an electrochemical cell, completely depending on electrical energy to power the process. This kind of process holds the potential to convert sustainable electricity, such as the one produced by wind energy, into ammonia, which can be further used as a chemical or a synthetic fuel. Electrochemically-produced ammonia holds the potential to revolutionize food production.
  • Ammonia production using a two-step cyclic process is also gaining some traction as a probable alternative to the conventional way of ammonia production using the Haber−Bosch process. Many leading ammonia producing companies are eyeing at this two-step cyclic process, as a sustainable way of producing ammonia. This process depends on concentrated solar energy for high-temperature process heat, thereby eliminating the emission of concomitant CO2, which takes place during fossil-fuelled processes.
  • The Haber-Bosch process is a widely and currently used process for ammonia production. It is performed at high pressure and temperature using pure hydrogen, which is generally obtained from natural gas through steam reforming. As ammonia synthesis uses up to 5% of total natural gas present in the world, it emits significant amount of greenhouse gases, adding to the climate change. Energy intake by ammonia production is the largest in the chemical industry. CO2 emissions are at least 2x the production volume. The ammonia production project developers have been working on strategies to synthesize ammonia, which don’t rely on methane-based and energy-intensive currently used Haber-Bosch process, in a move to alleviate the total energy consumption at a global level and to curtail climate change. Owing to the grave concerns around climate change, alternative methods for synthesizing ammonia are now of great scientific interest. Several aqueous electrolyte methods promise simplicity and cut costs, as the solvent water works as the direct hydrogen source, but this method of producing ammonia suffer from competitive hydrogen evolution that restricts the overall efficiency, and results into a low overall reaction rate.
  • In a recent discovery, Tokyo Institute of Technology researchers  have found that a calcium amide catalyst made up of  small amount of added barium with ruthenium nanoparticles immobilized onto it, holds the potential to produce ammonia 100 times more efficiently than the currently used conventional ruthenium catalysts at below 300ºC temperature. The performance of the calcium amide based catalyst is much better than the currently used iron catalysts.
  • Carbon-based catalysts could be attractive alternatives to transition metal catalysts for electrolytic ammonia synthesis because of low selectivity for hydrogen evolution.
  • In another probable trend, some manufacturers are retrofitting Haber-Bosch ammonia synthesis facilities with the existing technology for competitive wind electricity-based feedstock preparation for the production of fossil-free ammonia.
  • The thermochemical looping process represents one of the potential approaches for the sustainable production of ammonia without fossil CO2 release.

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Many manufacturers are taking initiatives to adopt a greener way to produce ammonia. For instance, Yara International ASA and BASF recently opened a novel world-scale ammonia plant, a $600-million, state-of-the-art facility in Freeport, Texas, USA which uses a cost-efficient and sustainable production process. The ammonia production plants is totally based on by-product hydrogen instead of natural gas, and thus, safeguards resources and alleviates environmental impact.