The Haber-Bosch Process: Getting Technical
Today, almost all ammonia (NH3) is produced through the 100-year-old Haber-Bosch process. The Haber-Bosch process involves a chemical reaction between hydrogen (H2) and nitrogen (N2). In order to turn these elements into ammonia (NH3), the strong triple bond in the nitrogen molecule and the single bond in the hydrogen molecule must both be broken.
Breaking those bonds requires a tremendous amount of energy. To reduce the amount of energy required, and to improve efficiencies, a catalyst is introduced. A catalyst is a material that helps speed up chemical reactions. Catalytic activity happens on the surface. The greater the surface area of the catalyst, the more efficient or faster the chemical reaction. A fast chemical reaction means lower costs and energy required to produce the reaction. Therefore, the goal is to have a catalyst with a large surface area.
In the manufacture of ammonia, iron is the catalyst of choice. When the iron catalyst is introduced into the ammonia manufacturing process, the nitrogen molecule interacts so strongly with the electrons on the surface of the iron catalyst that the bond between the two atoms in the nitrogen molecule is weakened and eventually breaks. This leaves both nitrogen atoms with three free electrons, enabling each atom to bond to three hydrogen atoms. At the end of the reaction chain, this combination forms ammonia.
Since more than 82% of the ammonia produced annually is used as agricultural fertilizer to significantly improve crop yield, and ammonia fertilizer is responsible for feeding 48% of the world’s population, the Haber-Bosch process has often been called the most important invention of the 20th century (eg., V. Smil, Nature 29 , 1999).
- Ammonia Synthesis White Paper
- Chemical Engineering, January 2010, Boosting Catalyst Productivity
- Nature Geoscience, October 2008, How A Century of Ammonia Synthesis Changed The World
- View Ammonia Video (below)
Understanding Nano Materials
A nanometer (nm) is one billionth of a meter, or 1,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.
Simply put, nanotechnology involves the production and use of materials and devices with molecular-scale precision. It requires the control of matter at dimensions of roughly 1-100 nm. These tiny particles can be seen only with the most powerful electron microscopes.
The unique physical, chemical and biological properties of nano materials differ fundamentally from the properties of larger particles. As size decreases, there is a corresponding increase in surface area and surface energy.
Nanotechnology focuses on understanding and creating improved materials, devices and systems to exploit these novel properties.
Using Nanotechnology to Improve the Haber-Bosch Process
At QSI, we’ve leveraged our unique understanding of nanotechnology to develop nano-scale catalysts that accelerate industrial chemical reactions. These are called “nanocatalyst accelerators.” QSI’s nanocatalyst accelerators are applied as a coating to standard catalysts, and improve a catalyst’s efficiency by up to 15% by increasing the surface area of the catalyst.
Think of it this way: A basketball (representing the standard iron catalyst) has a certain surface area. If you cover that basketball with mini basketballs the size of BBs (representing the iron nanocatalyst), you now have the surface area of the basketball PLUS the surface area of thousands of mini basketballs. The total surface area has increased significantly.
QSI’s FeNIX™ iron nanocatalyst accelerators typically measure in the 30-60 nm range. They make the Haber-Bosch process more efficient by increasing the active surface area of standard commercial iron catalysts, thereby lowering the reaction temperature and pressure required for the Haber-Bosch process to occur. As a result, less energy is needed to complete the reaction and create ammonia.
The nanocatalysts that we create through our patented process offer superior properties, including a spherical shape, a controlled oxide layer, a crystalline structure, very large surface area, and consistent particle size. These nanocatalysts yield consistently higher reaction activity and greater efficiency.
The patent for QuantumSphere’s gas phase condensation (GPC) process, which is the key to our nanocatalyst production, was awarded October 16, 2007. Its broad claims on the GPC process allow us to produce high surface area catalysts at the nano scale. To date, we have 10 issued patents and 1 patent pending. We have expended a substantive amount of capital and effort in establishing and protecting our intellectual property portfolio, and we will continue to file additional patents where appropriate.
An Automated Process
QuantumSphere’s patented process is safe, environmentally friendly and fully automated. Unlike competitive processes, we’ve removed expensive labor and the potential for human error from the manufacturing equation. Additionally, QSI’s implementation process onsite at industrial chemical facilities requires low supervision and little downtime.
With full automation comes increased production rates and lower labor and conversion costs. Our ability to deliver high-quality nanoscale catalysts in commercial quantities at reasonable prices has enabled industry-leading companies to incorporate our advanced technology into many industrial and consumer products.
Together with our partners, we are making possible the accelerated commercialization and mass market penetration of these new, advanced materials.
Synthetic or man-made nanoscale materials were first created in the 1970s using the GPC method. Today, there are dozens of processes for producing nanoscale materials.
Most of these processes are very expensive, require sophisticated and complex equipment, and are labor intensive. In addition, these methods may result in products with inconsistent particle size, distribution, shape and impurities, with little ability to scale up to commercial volume at reasonable cost.
To QSI management’s knowledge, no other company can match the size, purity, uniformity and catalytic activity of QSI products, they cannot deliver in large volumes, and they cannot demonstrate meaningful results in large, near-term commercial applications with compelling economic value propositions.
FeNIX™ Iron Nanocatalyst Accelerators: Commercial Validation
Our high surface area iron nanocatalyst accelerator, with a product name of FeNIX, is designed to increase the efficiency of ammonia production and the bottom line of the industrial chemical plants involved in the $100 billion USD ammonia production industry.
QSI has engaged in strategic programs with multiple top chemicals/catalysts producers around the globe, as well as a number of industry-leading corporations including Swiss-based Casale. Casale S.A. is a global leader in production technologies for ammonia, urea, melamine, methanol, syngas, nitrates and phosphates.
In 2015, together with our partners, we validated FeNIX in two production-scale ammonia plants in China by delivering a consistent 10-15% increase in production output in one plant, and delivering a consistent 15% increase in ammonia production efficiency in the second plant. This important commercial validation is anticipated to help drive early technology adoption in markets outside of China and generate revenues for QSI.