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Microwave-Plasma Ammonia Synthesis

West Virginia University (WVU)

Renewable Energy to Fuels Through Microwave-Plasma Catalytic Synthesis of Ammonia

Program: 
ARPA-E Award: 
$1,250,000
Location: 
Morgantown, WV
Project Term: 
04/01/2017 to 09/30/2018
Project Status: 
ACTIVE
Technical Categories: 
Critical Need: 
Most liquid fuels used in transportation today are derived from petroleum and burned in internal combustion engines. These fuels are attractive because of their high energy density and current economics, but they remain partially reliant on imported petroleum and are highly carbon intensive. Domestically produced carbon-neutral liquid fuels (CNLFs), such as ammonia (NH3), can address both of these challenges. Chemical manufacturers commonly use the Haber-Bosch (HB) process to produce NH3 for use in agriculture or the chemical industry. The HB process involves first separating nitrogen (N2) from air, then breaking the very stable nitrogen-nitrogen bond, and finally combining the nitrogen atoms with hydrogen to form NH3. The HB process requires huge capital investments for reactors to operate at high pressure and temperature, large amounts of base-load power to keep the process running continuously (HB uses 1-2% of global energy), and distribution infrastructure to ship the resulting ammonia around the world. Technology enabling the small- and medium-scale synthesis of ammonia can move the production of the fuels closer to the consumer, and - if renewable sources are used - the fuels can be produced in a carbon neutral manner. However, significant technical challenges remain in either adapting the HB process for smaller scale use or developing alternative electrochemical processes for fuel development. New methods would also have to employ variable rates of production to match the intermittent generation of renewable sources. Improvements in these areas could dramatically reduce the energy and carbon intensity of liquid fuel production. By taking better advantage of intermittent renewable resources in low-population areas and transporting that energy as a liquid fuel to urban centers, we can more fully utilize domestically available resources.
Project Innovation + Advantages: 
West Virginia University will develop a process to convert renewable electricity, water, and air into ammonia using plasma excitation at low temperatures and pressures. This process is different from both electrochemical conversion processes and catalytic processes like the HB process. In this form of physical activation, the microwave-plasma process can activate nitrogen and hydrogen, generating ions and free radicals that react over the catalyst surface to form ammonia. Under the correct conditions, microwave heating can selectively heat the catalyst to the temperature required for reactions without heating the surrounding area. This combination of a very hot catalyst and cool surroundings leads to overall lower reaction temperatures and improved energy efficiency. The lower pressure required for the process will also simplify the design. Both features enable better integration with renewable energy sources because the system can be turned on and off more quickly. Such advantages increase the cost competitiveness of the team's approach.
Potential Impact: 
If successful, developments from REFUEL projects will enable energy generated from domestic, renewable resources to increase fuel diversity in the transportation sector in a cost-effective and efficient way.
Security: 
The U.S. transportation sector is heavily dependent on petroleum for its energy. Increasing the diversity of energy-dense liquid fuels would bolster energy security and help reduce energy imports.
Environment: 
Liquid fuels created using energy from renewable resources are carbon-neutral, helping reduce transportation sector emissions.
Economy: 
Fuel diversity reduces exposure to price volatility. By storing energy in hydrogen-rich liquid fuels instead of pure hydrogen in liquid or gaseous form, transportation costs can be greatly reduced, helping make CNLFs cost-competitive with traditional fuels.
Contacts
ARPA-E Program Director: 
Dr. Grigorii Soloveichik
Project Contact: 
Dr. Jianli (John) Hu
Partners
National Energy Technology Laboratory
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Release Date: 
12/15/2016