The production of ammonia is an important industrial process, and what many people don’t realize is that global production of ammonia was 235 million metric tons in 2019.
Joseph Priestley isolated gaseous ammonia in 1774. A year later, another scientist learned more about its composition. Then in 1898, Adolph Frank and Nikodem Caro learned that when fixed by calcium carbide, N2 could form calcium cyanamide. Hydrolyzed with water, calcium cyanamide forms ammonia.
By 1913, the world had its first Haber-Bosch ammonia plant, enabling the manufacture of ammonia directly from hydrogen and nitrogen. And since then, annual ammonia production has increased steadily to meet growing demands.
In the 250+ years since ammonia’s discovery, scientists have been looking for ways to reduce the amount of energy required to produce ammonia due to the importance of ammonia.
What is the importance of ammonia and why have scientists focused so heavily on its efficient production over the years? Learn the answers to those questions and more.
Why Is Ammonia Important?
You’re probably familiar with household ammonia, which is a cleaning solution. Generally, these solutions are between 5 and 10 percent ammonia. The most popular use cases for ammonia are in solutions that provide a streak-free shine. This includes solutions for cleaning glass, porcelain and stainless steel.
Although the chemical produces incredible streak-free cleaning, you should not use it on touchscreens because ammonia can damage the screen’s anti-glare and anti-fingerprint coatings.
And while these are helpful household items, ammonia is far more important for commercial use cases.
The most common use for ammonia is in agriculture as a fertilizer. Agriculture makes up about 80 percent of the world’s ammonia use. But ammonia is also an important element in manufacturing the following:
Another reason ammonia is important is because we use it in the water purification process and as an antimicrobial agent for food products.
Ammonia can also be used as a refrigerant and is commonly used for ice skating rinks. It is very energy efficient when used this way while also being cost-effective. However, because ammonia is corrosive, it does present challenges in ensuring all pipes and materials it comes in contact with are corrosion resistant.
Commercial uses of ammonia generally use concentrations of 25 percent or higher, which is far greater than the 5 to 10 percent you’ll find in household products.
Importance of Ammonia in Agriculture
Ammonia is a valuable chemical used to help plants grow. The nitrogen-containing nutrient is what fertilizes the soil. You have likely used ammonia to help your lawn grow and never realized it.
The importance of ammonia in agriculture cannot be underscored enough because it helps sustain food production that billions of people rely on. Plants naturally deplete the soil of its nitrate, which means farmers need a way to replace that nitrate to keep the soil productive. Approximately 50 percent of the world’s food supply relies on ammonia fertilizers.
Ammonia-treated crops, such as corn and wheat, can experience far greater yields, which is why it is an essential element of today’s agriculture. Agriculture use accounts for roughly 202 million metric tons of ammonia per year.
What many people don’t realize is that ammonia is a naturally occurring chemical. You’ll find it in the air, water and soil as well as in plants and animals. Even humans create ammonia during the process of breaking down foods that contain protein.
However, the naturally occurring form of ammonia is biologically unusable. That’s where the Haber-Bosch process comes in. This is an artificial process that captures nitrogen from the air and converts it into the form farmers use to fertilize their crops. Ammonia (NH3) is the foundation for nitrogen-based fertilizers.
The concentration levels of household ammonia products are generally safe for use. However, if you get the product on your skin, you will likely suffer some irritation. Higher levels of ammonia, such as those used in commercial products, can be dangerous and requires expert handling. Inhaling too much could lead to lung damage and even death.
Ammonia exposure will vary based on its concentration as well as the duration that you are exposed to the chemical and how you’re using it. Those who use fertilizers, especially in commercial applications, should use all recommended safety equipment and handle the chemical with extreme care.
If you get ammonia in your eyes, you should flush them with water for no less than 30 minutes and seek medical attention immediately. Skin contact with ammonia requires quickly immersing that part of the body in water. Individuals who experience overexposure to breathing in ammonia should undergo medical observation for 24 to 48 hours.
The greatest danger and risk with household ammonia use is if you were to mix it with bleach. Mixing ammonia with bleach produces toxic chloramine gasses. The gas can cause nausea, wheezing, chest pain, watery eyes, fluid in the lungs, shortness of breath and other concerning symptoms.
Read labels and instructions for use carefully for any products containing ammonia as several other common household chemicals can produce similar reactions that are dangerous to you.
The Challenge of Ammonia-making and Greenhouse Gasses
Over the years, experts have looked for ways to improve the energy efficiency of the ammonia-making process. Ammonia production currently accounts for 1.8 percent of global CO2 emissions due to the use of fossil fuels for the hydrogen source and for powering the synthesis process.
And while ammonia is essential to many modern use cases, including fertilizing crops, finding a greener way to produce the chemical will reduce greenhouse gasses significantly.
As the demand for ammonia-based fertilizers continues to increase, there are clear signs that the crucial chemical isn’t going anywhere. So instead of looking for ways to reduce ammonia production, scientists are testing ways to make it greener and more sustainable.
By completely avoiding the use of fossil fuels upstream in the production process, and in the source of power, ammonia can be made 100 percent green.
Researchers say that because much of the food supply relies on fertilizer, which relies on fossil fuels, that makes food a fossil-fuel product. Keeping the status quo is not sustainable, which is why there is so much attention on green ammonia production.
IAMM™ from AmmPower is leading the way in producing green ammonia with an innovative approach that brings ammonia production to the end-user through modular units capable of producing green ammonia for commercial use.
The units are modular and offer a quick deployment regardless of the scale that companies require for their operations. Astoundingly, the process is completely carbon-free. Learn more about clean, sustainable energy technology from IAMM™ that’s transforming ammonia production.