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Scientists discover easier, cleaner way to synthesize promising fuel alternative: 'Our new method should result in worldwide energy-saving'

"[This will] help prevent further global warming."

"[This will] help prevent further global warming."

Photo Credit: iStock

Researchers at RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science in Japan have discovered a new way to synthesize ammonia while creating less pollution. The discovery could have big implications for alternative fuel production as well as in the manufacturing of fertilizer.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Chemical Science. The study was summarized on Phys.org.

Ammonia is most commonly used in plant fertilizers — roughly 80% of the ammonia produced annually goes toward fertilizer production. However, this comes with big environmental downsides, as the process traditionally used to synthesize ammonia (known as the Haber-Bosch process) requires extreme heat and a massive energy footprint, per the Phys.org report.

The alternative process discovered by the RIKEN researchers requires lower temperatures and much less energy overall.

"Replacing the Haber-Bosch process with our new method should result in worldwide energy-saving," said Satoshi Kamiguchi, who led the research. "If ammonia fuel and hydrogen fuel are used in much larger amounts, vastly reducing the energy needed to synthesize ammonia will lead to lower CO2 emissions and help prevent further global warming."

Potentially even more exciting than the implications for the fertilizer industry is the potential use of ammonia as an alternative energy source. Ammonia fuel can potentially be burned directly in internal combustion engines (the type of engine in traditional gas-powered cars) without releasing any planet-warming carbon dioxide. 

At least one company, a Norwegian shipping operation, is already putting this idea into practice

However, the main factor limiting ammonia as a green fuel source has always been that the Haber-Bosch process of synthesizing the ammonia itself is anything but green — online magazine Yale Environment 360 noted that the ammonia production industry is "one of the dirtiest on the planet." 

With this new process developed by the RIKEN researchers, that could change.

The problem is that the new process still requires hydrogen, typically created using a very energy-intensive process. Therefore, to make truly green ammonia, scientists will need to use alternative processes to create hydrogen.

"When our catalyst system is combined with green H2 [hydrogen] production from renewable energy, the emission of global-warming CO2 could be reduced even more," Kamiguchi said.

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