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K-State Today

September 28, 2016

K-State chemical engineering and chemistry faculty members awarded Department of Energy grant to develop a new ammonia synthesis process

Submitted by Sarah Hancock

About 140 million metric tons of synthetic ammonia is made each year worldwide to provide the nitrogen required to make the fertilizers we need to feed our growing population. A group of K-State researchers has received a $598,866 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science to develop a new process to make ammonia.

The technique used since the early 20th century, the Haber-Bosch process, uses coal or natural gas to produce ammonia, which means much of our food — as much as 40 percent — is fossil fuel–derived.

Peter Pfromm, professor of chemical engineering, is principal investigator of a team developing a process that does not require fossil fuels. His co-workers are Bin Liu, assistant professor of chemical engineering, and Viktor Chikan, associate professor of chemistry, along with several graduate students.

Pfromm's team is returning to a process originally investigated by developers of the Haber-Bosch process. Scientists attempted to absorb nitrogen from air into a metal to break the nitrogen triple bond and produce a metal/nitrogen compound called a nitride, then use gaseous hydrogen to contact the metal nitride and liberate ammonia. The nitride work was abandoned as soon as the Haber-Bosch process showed economic promise despite required pressures in excess of 200 atmospheres and temperatures of several hundred degrees celsius.

Pfromm, Liu and Chikan are making nitrides via manganese-based metal alloys in the form of nanoparticles. The group expects the unusual properties of materials at the nano-scale to advance the nitride approach to synthesizing ammonia, thus providing a process that can be completed at atmospheric pressure and under moderate temperatures. Making needed hydrogen with renewable electricity would make the process essentially fossil fuel-free and economically competitive with fossil fuel-based ammonia.

"The ultimate goal of the project is to advance toward decoupling our food from fossil fuel by synthesizing ammonia in a simple and rugged process from renewable energy," Pfromm said.

Making ammonia simply and inexpensively will help agricultural producers feed growing populations, particularly in developing countries.

"If successful, we may enable ammonia synthesis at regional or local levels in areas of the world where agricultural yield increases are sorely needed, and where farmers use little ammonia now because of economic barriers," Pfromm said.

"The work on ammonia synthesis by the team led by Dr. Pfromm is an excellent fit with K-State's overall mission since it advances both renewable energy and the entire field of agriculture and agronomy. Renewable energy is a focus of the department of chemical engineering, and this award is in recognition of the outstanding research and ideas of K-State faculty," said James Edgar, head of the department of chemical engineering.

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