Catalyst Surface Study Could Revolutionize Fertilizer Manufacturing

Stockholm University researchers conducting an ammonia catalyst surface study have made a breakthrough that could revolutionize fertilizer manufacturing. The scientists studied the surface of ruthenium and iron catalysts during the formation of ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen for the first time ever and published their results in the journal “Nature.”

Their findings gave a deeper understanding of the catalytic process involved in ammonia formation and opened the door to the discovery of more efficient fertilizer materials. Ammonia is a critical base chemical in fertilizer production. It is typically produced via the Haber-Bosch process, a technique that has been referred to as humanity’s greatest scientific invention of the 20th century. The process is mostly responsible for the world’s yearly production of 110 million tons of ammonia and is credited with saving billions of lives globally by preventing mass starvation.

However, despite the critical role ammonia and fertilizers have played in advancing human civilization, the process of creating fertilizers significantly contributes to global emissions. Stockholm University professor of chemical physics Anders Nilsson says researchers have been unable to experimentally investigate the catalyst surface under real ammonia production conditions using surface-sensitive methods.

Nilsson notes that the research team at Stockholm University built a photoelectron spectroscopy device to allow them to study catalyst surfaces under high-pressure conditions. The instrument allowed the researchers to see what happens in different reactions and granted them deeper insight into ammonia production catalysis, chemical physics postdoc David Degerman says. Degerman explains that the new instrument is capable of “detecting reaction intermediaries and providing evidence of the reaction mechanism,” a feat researchers have been unable to achieve for decades.

Stockholm University researcher Patrick Lömker adds it was essential that the instrument is placed at one of the world’s brightest x-ray sources, Hamburg’s PETRA III, and says the research team can now look to a future with brighter x-ray sources once PETRA III is upgraded to PETRA IV.

According to Nilsson, researchers now have the tools they need to look for new catalyst materials in ammonia production that could help the fertilizer industry cut its emissions in line with global plans to transition to clean energy. With most major industries working to adopt renewable energy and clean technologies, especially sectors that contribute to global emissions, the fertilizer segment simply cannot be left behind.

A Cambridge University study found that both synthetic fertilizers and manure emit 2.6 gigatons of carbon each year, surpassing emissions from global shipping and aviation combined. As efforts continue to find ways to reduce these emissions, it is likely that major fertilizer manufacturers such as Compass Minerals International Inc. (NYSE: CMP) could tweak their processes to accommodate these new production technologies.

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