Low impact ammonia and fertilizers production

Title of the research project

SuN2rise - Solar driven electrochemical nitrogen fixation for ammonia refinery

Scientific area

Chemical engineering, Nanotechnologies, Sustainable agriculture

Project coordinator

Federico Bella

Abstract 

SuN2rise project will develop a device to produce ammonia and fertilizers through a highly sustainable process both from the environmental and economic viewpoints, using solar energy to split the extremely stable nitrogen molecule.

Description of the research project 

Ammonia, besides being an important industrial molecular platform, has many applications in the synthesis of chemicals such as nitric acid and fertilizers. The industrial process for producing ammonia has a very high environmental impact, is responsible of 2% of world energy consumption and of 2% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Ammonia production takes place, from the beginning of 20th century, according to the Haber-Bosch process (from the names of the two scientists who developed it), using nitrogen and hydrogen as reactants and in presence of a heterogeneous iron-based catalyst. The difficulties of the process lie particularly in the high energy required to split the nitrogen molecule (N2), a necessary step to obtain ammonia (NH3). The splitting requires - until today - very high temperature and pressure and only few industrial plants on Earth are able to do it.

SuN2rise project will develop a strategy to obtain ammonia in a much simpler way, through a process economically and environmentally sustainable, using sun energy to feed the electrochemical conversion of N2 into NH3, starting from air and water, and proceeding under mild conditions. Innovative solar cells based on hybrid materials will be developed, together with catalysts free of expensive metals. The final objective is the in situ production (inside greenhouses) of the fertilizer necessary for plants growth, thus contributing to a more sustainable agriculture and reducing the environmental impact of the current nitrogen fertilizers production and distribution system.

Impact on society 

The Paris conference on climate change set important objectives on CO2 reduction: 40% reduction before 2030 and 80% before 2050. This pushed a number of researchers to work on CO2 storage or conversion. The SuN2rise project approach is completely different as its purpose is to avoid, a priori, the introduction of CO2 in the atmosphere, through the re-design of one of the most impactful industrial chemistry processes ever.

The project will make this process more sustainable both from the environmental and economic viewpoints, allowing the production of fertilizers where they are needed. It will also have an impact on liquid fuels, as the use of NH3 for fuel cells  is less dangerous and produces more energy than traditional systems fed by H2.

Short CV of project coordinator 

Federico Bella (Turin, 1987) is associate professor of Chemical Foundations of Technologies at Politecnico di Torino. He got a MSc in Industrial Chemistry and a Ph.D. in Electronic devices. He has been visiting scientist at Universitat Politècnica de València, National University of Malaysia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. He has been awarded with the “ENI Award” as the best Italian under-30 scientist in the field of renewable energy and with the “Environment, Sustainability & Energy Division early Career Award” from the Royal Society of Chemistry for the development of innovative materials for solar cells and batteries. He recently received, from the President of the Italian Republic, the international prize “Roberto Piontelli” for scientific contributions in the field of electrochemical energy. He is author of 80 publications in international peer-reviewed journal, and is an elected member of the Editorial Board of Chemical Engineering Journal and ChemSusChem, prestigious scientific journals in the field of materials, products and chemical processes sustainability. He is member of the International Relations Commission of the Italian Chemical Society and member of the Board of the Industrial Chemistry Division.

SuN2rise project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme  grant agreement No 948769

  • Budget: 1.498.750
  • Start date: 1/02/2021
  • End date: 31/01/2026