Canada and Germany produce a combined 6.3 million tons of ammonia annually. Used primarily in the fertilizer, textile, and pharmaceutical industries, conventional ammonia production is energy-intensive and accounts for up to two per cent of primary energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Researchers at McGill and the Technical University of Munich (TUM), recently received a funding boost to undertake a collaborative project with the goal of producing renewable, “green” ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen by means of an innovative plasma-catalytic process.
On June 25, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, or BMBF) announced an investment of $1 million ($500,000 from NSERC and $500,000 from BMBF) through the joint Canada-Germany call for projects on hydrogen technologies. Ten projects were funded, including one for McGill’s Catalytic and Plasma Process Engineering (CPPE) group headed by Professors Sylvain Coulombe and Jan Kopyscinski, and the Energy Systems (CES) and Chemical Technology laboratories headed by Professors Hartmut Spliethoff and Olaf Hinrichsen at the TUM.
The CPPE group develops unique plasma-catalysis reactors. The CES group focuses on energy system modeling and reactor scale-up. The Chemical Technology laboratory has studied the dynamics of transitioning to renewable energy supplies and integrating ammonia into alternative energy systems. Together they bring complementary scientific and engineering expertise, as well as successful experience in technology transfer to industry, to the challenge.
With an initial investment of $50,000 from NSERC and the BMBF, the groups will investigate a novel scalable approach for the plasma-catalytic conversion of hydrogen and nitrogen to ammonia. Renewable electricity, nitrogen from air and hydrogen from water, are the only inputs to the process. The researchers’ goal is to combine the extreme chemical reactivity of the plasma and the multiple functions of the catalyst into an energy-and material-efficient reactor capable of displacing fossil fuel-based technology. This conversion to “green” ammonia could pave a more sustainable path for ammonia production, including the possibility of installing compact all-electric and on-demand ammonia synthesis plants wherever water, air and renewable electricity are available.
Research in this area supports the objectives established in the Natural Resources Canada strategic plan, Hydrogen Strategy for Canada – Seizing the Opportunities for Hydrogen, launched in December 2020, with the stated objective to set the country on the path to meet the net-zero climate change goal by 2050.
“By decarbonizing the ammonia production process, there is huge potential for Canada to become a strong green ammonia exporter as part of its Hydrogen Strategy, which will not only contribute to climate change goals, but also create jobs and exportable high-value products from renewable electricity”, explains Coulombe. “Fundamental research, together with McGill’s and TUM’s unique engineering expertise, can help to maximize Canada's and Germany's investments in green ammonia production technologies, as well position both countries to become technology leaders in this key area of green hydrogen utilization.”
Portions of the NSERC-BMBF grant will enable necessary upgrades to the catalytic plate reactor located at McGill, as well as the costs of a McGill research trainee exchange and workshop, whereby students will undertake research at the TUM. On the strength of their initial results, the researchers hope to obtain additional funding to support a longer-term research endeavor and attract industrial partners to implement the technology. This vision for impactful collaborative research and development and technology transfer is a cornerstone of the recently created McGill Centre for Innovation in Storage and Conversion of Energy.