Harnessing value by keeping it local

New project, spearheaded by UND’s EERC, could produce ammonia locally while saving energy and decreasing emissions

Julia Zhao, Ted Aulich and John Hurley

EERC’s Ted Aulich (center) and fellow UND scientists Julia Zhao, chemistry; and John Hurley, a principal materials scientists at EERC; are working on a three-year, $3.2-million research project to reduce the amount of energy needed to produce ammonia. Image courtesy of a Kari Suedel, EERC.

What if there was a new, less expensive way to produce ammonia, an essential fertilizer?

A way that uses less energy and could be scaled up or down according to need?

And could be manufactured locally, saving transportation costs?

A group of scientists thinks it can be done. And they now have the funding to find out.

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded $2.5 million to the UND Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) to develop an improved ammonia production method. The total pilot project award is $3.2 million over three years.

“Ammonia is one of the largest volume chemicals produced in the world,” said Ted Aulich, principal process chemist at the EERC. “Ammonia production accounts for between 1 and 2 percent of total worldwide energy consumption. That’s a lot of energy.”

Aulich and his fellow scientists are focused on reducing the amount of energy needed to produce ammonia and associated carbon dioxide emissions.

“Our concept derives from the idea that there is a better way to monetize North Dakota renewable energy than shipping it out of state at commodity prices. If we use it in the state to produce ammonia, it captures more value. I think we have the idea, the team and now the funding to make this happen.”

Team North Dakota

Team members on the project include EERC scientists Aulich, Jivan Thakare, research engineer, and John Hurley, principal materials scientist; Julia Zhao professor of chemistry at UND; Xiangfa Wu, associate professor of mechanical engineering at NDSU; and Proton OnSite, a Connecticut company which manufactures hydrogen generators.

Aulich said that traditional ammonia production requires high pressure, which translates to high cost. This improved process operates at ambient pressure, reducing capital and operating costs while decreasing energy requirements and carbon dioxide emissions. The key is a unique polymer–inorganic composite membrane that can transport protons at 300 degrees celcius. With the membrane and use of renewable electricity, the process would enable commercial-scale production of ammonia with no or extremely limited carbon dioxide emissions.

“The technology we’re using for this ammonia process is electrochemical, and closely related to fuel cells,” Aulich said, “and our membrane concept is unique.”

“Our objective is to manufacture the electrochemical systems in North Dakota. We have the expertise, the technology is clean and means good jobs, and we can do it here.”

Real-world application

Xiangfa Wu

Xiangfa Wu

Aulich said that his group was initially trying to develop the process on their own, but needed more expertise. So they partnered with UND Chemistry and NDSU.

“We needed someone who understands polymers. NDSU is world renowned in polymer processing, and after a short conversation with Xiangfa Wu, we knew he was the guy we needed. Without NDSU, we only had half the puzzle. Now we have the chemistry and a way to deploy it.”

Development of the membrane concept also required catalyst expertise. “This is a real application of my work on developing nanotechnology to help the nation and North Dakota,” said Zhao. The project will use cutting-edge nanotechnology. “I’m excited to work with EERC and NDSU. We each have a strong background for this project.”

“This project will offer a great opportunity to the two research universities of the State of North Dakota to collaboratively develop cutting-edge, innovative technologies for renewable energy conversion and storage, to enhance the research capabilities and reputation of UND and NDSU in energy science and technologies, and to cultivate and educate new-generation students and researchers in renewable energy harvesting, conversion and storage for the state and the nation,” said Wu in an email.

Wu said the NDSU group will focus on developing the polymer-inorganic composite membranes by using an advanced low-cost, scalable nano-manufacturing technique.

And Zhao’s work will use nanotechnology to develop a catalyst to speed the reaction that produces the ammonia. Tiny, solid particles that aren’t visible to the naked eye will increase the surface area and speed the reaction.

“This is exciting for me,” said Zhao. “I do fundamental research, and it’s wonderful to see real applications. I like collaborating, and this is a very good integration.”