Green Ammonia: Revolutionizing Sustainable Fertilizer Production


Over a century ago, two German scientists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, revolutionized agriculture by devising a method to produce ammonia, a blend of hydrogen and nitrogen, on an industrial scale. Their groundbreaking invention facilitated the mass production of fertilizers, significantly boosting crop yields throughout the 20th century. Today, ammonia-derived nitrogen fertilizers are essential in feeding nearly half of the global population, with around 80 percent of the ammonia produced being used in crop nutrients.

Despite its agricultural benefits, the production process for ammonia, known as the Haber-Bosch process, is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, resulting in substantial carbon emissions. However, advancements in technology now enable the production of “green” ammonia using renewable energy sources, drastically reducing its environmental impact. As global populations inch towards an estimated 10 billion by 2050, this innovation offers a sustainable solution to meet increasing food demands without exacerbating climate change.

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Traditionally, ammonia is produced by combining nitrogen from the air with hydrogen obtained from natural gas or coal, under high pressure and temperature using an iron catalyst. Green ammonia production, conversely, utilizes hydrogen generated by the electrolysis of water, powered by renewable energies like wind or solar. Similar to conventional ammonia, green ammonia is an energy-dense liquid that can be easily stored and transported. This compatibility raises hopes for not only reducing emissions in agriculture but also in sectors like shipping where it serves as a clean fuel alternative.

The advantages of green ammonia are manifold. It stands to significantly curb carbon dioxide emissions and can be leveraged as both a fuel source and a method to store surplus renewable energy. However, the downside is its cost. Producing green ammonia using renewables is considerably more expensive—around 70 percent of the final product price is tied to the cost of power. Fertilizer producers and farmers, often operating with slim profit margins, find complete transition nearly unfeasible.

The adoption of green ammonia is currently progressing at a sluggish pace. A 2021 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the International Fertiliser Association projected that CO2 emissions from ammonia production could be slashed from 452 million tonnes in 2020 to under 20 million tonnes by 2050, provided water electrolysis racks up 40 percent of production from the current less than 1 percent. Achieving this target demands the installation of more than ten 30-megawatt electrolysers each month. As of three years later, Europe boasts only one 24MW plant.

Addressing a significant fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture’s heavy reliance on nitrogen-based fertilizers demonstrates the profound impact green ammonia could have. Additionally, its potential as a green substitute for fossil fuels in transportation and energy production underscores its importance. Nevertheless, overcoming challenges related to scaling up and economic viability is crucial.

Though still in the nascent stages, green ammonia development is gradually gaining traction. Fertilizer behemoth Yara recently inaugurated Europe’s largest green hydrogen plant in Norway, which will produce sufficient green hydrogen to cover approximately 4 percent—about 20,000 tonnes—of ammonia produced at the site via a 24MW electrolyser, subsequently manufacturing between 60,000 and 80,000 tonnes of fertilizer. While established enterprises like Yara are advancing, innovative startups are also making strides. For instance, Atome intends to utilize hydropower from Paraguay’s Itaipu hydroelectric dam, the world’s second-largest, to generate green hydrogen at half the cost of green power in Europe, as per their CEO Olivier Mussat.

Sustainable fertilizer production benefits the entire food value chain—from farmers to retailers—by mitigating emissions. It also creates prospects for companies in energy storage and transportation, and provides an edge to nations with affordable renewable energy. Nonetheless, conventional ammonia producers face the necessity of transitioning to these new, greener methodologies.

Investment in green ammonia is surging from both energy and fertilizer companies like Ørsted and Yara as they diversify into green technologies, alongside industrial giants such as Siemens and Thyssenkrupp. Venture capital is also targeting startups and cutting-edge technologies. Despite this influx, the industry contends that current government subsidies and research funding are insufficient given the high costs and the urgent need to accelerate progress.