Atlas Agro ($325M to produce green fertilizer for aricultural decarbonization)

Atlas Agro, a Swiss cleantech startup founded in 2021, develops, builds, and operates green nitrogen fertilizer plants. The company produces crop nutrients using only air, water, and renewable energy, thereby eliminating the use of gas and coal as raw materials and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Challenges: green ammonia

Ammonia (NH₃) is an important chemical for farming. Around the world, 185 million metric tons of ammonia were made in 2021, and more than 80% of that was used to make fertilizer. As the world's population grows, so does the need for ammonia. Ammonia is also a material that shows promise as a way to store energy and power vehicles. There is more energy in liquid ammonia (11.5 MJ/L) than in liquid hydrogen (8.491 MJ/L) or in compressed hydrogen at 690 kPa and 15 °C (4.5 MJ/L). Companies like Amogy, Hyundai, and Mitsui O.S.K. Lines are developing ammonia-powered cars.

The Haber-Bosch process turns hydrogen (H₂) and nitrogen (N₂) into ammonia. This is the main way that ammonia is made in industry. The process can only be done economically at large plants. These plants are usually located in remote areas where natural gas is cheap. To have a high yield of ammonia, the Haber-Bosch process needs very pure hydrogen and nitrogen, as well as high temperatures and pressures (above 450 ºC and 200 bar, respectively). These conditions are ideal for iron-based catalysts. Because the process uses a lot of energy, it uses about 2% of the world's fossil fuels and releases over 420 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO₂) every year. 1.5% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from making ammonia.

The Haber-Bosch process needs pure hydrogen, which is made by Steam Methane Reforming (SMR). About 80% of these CO₂ emissions come from the energy-intensive SMR process used to make hydrogen. Direct CO₂ emissions as a product of the SMR chemical reaction make this process hard to decarbonize (average 9.01 kgCO₂ kgH₂⁻¹ emitted from SMR facilities in the United States).

Using electricity to produce hydrogen via water electrolysis for ammonia synthesis is not a new concept. In the 1970s, Grundt and Christensen evaluated a design of ammonia synthesis using hydroelectric power to produce hydrogen via alkaline electrolysis with a peak efficiency greater than 60% operating at 80 ºC. However, this approach was abandoned due to several reasons:

  • Hydroelectric power has geographical restrictions.
  • The price of electricity is lower than the cost of hydroelectricity, and most of it already comes from fossil fuels.
  • The price of gray hydrogen made by SMR is much lower than the price of green hydrogen made by water electrolysis.

The utilization of renewable electricity for the production of green hydrogen through water electrolysis, which is then used in ammonia synthesis, has regained significant interest in recent years. This shift can be attributed to the following issues:

  • The challenge of CO₂ emissions has become a significant concern due to their impact on climate change and the environment.
  • The rapid development of solar cell panels and wind turbines has reduced the price of renewable electricity.
  • The advancements of water electrolysis have reduced the cost of green hydrogen.

Atlas Agro Technology

Atlas Agro has collaborated with KBR to build ammonia synthesis plants using KBR's innovative K-GreeN technology. The technology involves the processes of nitrogen separation from the air and hydrogen production from water through electrolysis using renewable electricity. The hydrogen and nitrogen are subsequently combined in the Haber-Bosch reactor to produce ammonia. Nitric acid is generated from one-half of the ammonia produced; this acid is then combined with the remaining half of the ammonia to form ammonium nitrate fertilizer.

The diagram below presents an illustration of the entire process.

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