guano

 

In the 19th century, Europeans came to recognise what the Inca civilisation had long understood: the immense value of bird droppings, or guano, as a potent fertiliser.

This realisation launched a sprawling industry dedicated to harvesting guano from the vast colonies of Latin American birds, where enormous mounds of the valuable substance accumulated.

Guano proved to be a treasure trove of nutrients, particularly rich in ammonia, a critical component for plant growth. However, its transportation posed challenges, with its pungent odour capable of inducing coughing and sneezing among those handling it.

As demand for fertilisers surged in the early 1900s, innovators began pondering alternative methods. One such visionary was Fritz Haber, a German chemist, who, alongside Carl Bosch, devised the groundbreaking Haber-Bosch process for synthesising ammonia.

For over a century, humanity has leaned heavily on this technological marvel. Without it, the world’s population might have remained stagnant, as ammonia fertilizers play a pivotal role in sustaining modern agriculture. Yet, the environmental toll of the Haber-Bosch process, particularly its reliance on fossil fuels, has spurred a critical question: can we do things differently?

Currently, ammonia production contributes nearly 2% of global CO2 emissions, necessitating a shift towards more sustainable practices. A slew of companies now endeavors to demonstrate the feasibility of producing “green” ammonia, or exploring alternative methods that don’t exacerbate climate change.

One such company is Starfire Energy, led by co-founder and CEO Joe Beach.

“We have a well-sealed system, you don’t smell it,” he said, reassuringly.

Ammonia, or NH3, is simply nitrogen and hydrogen, both highly abundant elements. Earth’s atmosphere is mostly nitrogen, and water is full of hydrogen.

Their approach involves harnessing renewable energy sources to convert air and water into ammonia. By employing electrolysers to extract hydrogen from water and combining it with nitrogen extracted from the atmosphere, Starfire Energy circumvents the reliance on fossil fuels. Their system, designed to be adaptable to intermittent renewable energy sources like wind and solar, offers a promising avenue for sustainable ammonia production.

Moreover, the compact nature of Starfire Energy’s technology allows for decentralised production, potentially reducing the need for long-distance transportation of ammonia fertiliser and further curbing emissions.

“For a conventional ammonia plant to go from cold to full output is a two- to three-day process,” Mr Beach says. “For us, it’s about a two-hour process.”

Starfire Energy aims to deliver its first commercial-scale devices, which could produce a tonne of ammonia per day, in 2025.

In general, green ammonia start-ups want to show that they can make ammonia production cleaner and easier to control. Plus, many, want to package the required tech in a space as small as a shipping container, so that it can be made near to the point of use.

“We do want to make fertiliser on a small scale so we can use it more efficiently,” says Lea Winter at Yale University.

Atmonia, based in Iceland, shares a similar vision of compact, decentralised ammonia production. Helga Flosad├│ttir, the company’s co-founder and CEO, emphasises not only the importance of decarbonising fertiliser production but also the potential of ammonia as a clean fuel alternative. Their mini ammonia factories, designed to fit within shipping containers, offer versatility and scalability, envisioning a future where ammonia serves not only as a fertiliser but also as a renewable energy source for various applications, including transportation.

Meanwhile, Jupiter Ionics, led by Douglas MacFarlane, takes a novel approach to ammonia production. Their technology utilises lithium as a mediator to facilitate the conversion of nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia. This method presents a distinct pathway towards sustainable ammonia production, with plans to scale up production to meet growing demand.

“Those plants would have to be, ultimately, on the gigawatt scale,” he says.

Beyond these innovative production methods, other ventures like Nitricity are exploring alternative approaches to nitrogen fixation. By utilising solar-powered plasma cells to directly extract nitrogen from the air and convert it into nitrates for soil application, Nitricity offers a more direct and environmentally friendly solution to nitrogen fertilisation.

“We don’t require any hydrogen production,” says Dr McEnaney, president and chief technology officer of Nitricity. “We go straight for the fertiliser.”

Despite the challenges ahead, including the need to scale up these technologies effectively, there is growing optimism surrounding the potential of green ammonia and alternative nitrogen fixation methods. Large-scale projects, such as those leveraging renewable energy sources, exemplify the feasibility of transitioning towards more sustainable practices in ammonia production.

Moreover, the versatility of ammonia extends beyond agriculture. Lindsey Motlow, a senior research associate at Darcy Partners, highlights its potential as a fuel source, capable of being cracked to release hydrogen for various energy applications.

“We’re seeing real progress in [the] development of ammonia cracking technology,” she says.

 

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