Current and future role of Haber–Bosch ammonia in a carbon-free energy landscape†
The future of a carbon-free society relies on the alignment of the intermittent production of renewable energy with our continuous and increasing energy demands. Long-term energy storage in molecules with high energy content and density such as ammonia can act as a buffer versus short-term storage (e.g. batteries). In this paper, we demonstrate that the Haber–Bosch ammonia synthesis loop can indeed enable a second ammonia revolution as energy vector by replacing the CO2 intensive methane-fed process with hydrogen produced by water splitting using renewable electricity. These modifications demand a redefinition of the conventional Haber–Bosch process with a new optimisation beyond the current one which was driven by cheap and abundant natural gas and relaxed environmental concerns during the last century. Indeed, the switch to electrical energy as fuel and feedstock to replace fossil fuels (e.g. methane) will lead to dramatic energy efficiency improvements through the use of high efficiency electrical motors and complete elimination of direct CO2 emissions. Despite the technical feasibility of the electrically-driven Haber–Bosch ammonia, the question still remains whether such revolution will take place. We reveal that its success relies on two factors: increased energy efficiency and the development of small-scale, distributed and agile processes that can align to the geographically isolated and intermittent renewable energy sources. The former requires not only higher electrolyser efficiencies for hydrogen production but also a holistic approach to the ammonia synthesis loop with the replacement of the condensation separation step by alternative technologies such as absorption and catalysis development. Such innovations will open the door to moderate pressure systems, the development and deployment of novel ammonia synthesis catalysts, and even more importantly, the opportunity for integration of reaction and separation steps to overcome equilibrium limitations. When realised, green ammonia will reshape the current energy landscape by directly replacing fossil fuels in transportation, heating, electricity, etc., and as done in the last century, food.