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Plasma-based electrolysis makes ammonia at ambient conditions

By Gerald Ondrey |

Researchers from Case Western Reserve University (CWR; Cleveland, Ohio; www.case.edu) have shown that a hybrid electrolytic system using a gaseous plasma electrode can produce ammonia from water and nitrogen at ambient temperature and pressure — without any catalytic material surface.

Distinct from other plasma-based processes, such as natural lightning or the Birkeland-Eyde process (a pre-Haber-Bosch method that uses an electric arc in air to make nitrates), the CWR method takes place in a N2 atmosphere in the absence of air. The process is similar to other electrochemical approaches, except that the metal cathode is replaced by a plasma formed in the gap between a nozzle and the surface of a dilute sulfuric acid solution, which supplies protons for the process. At the cathode, N2 and energetic electrons from the plasma are injected into the solution, and solvated electrons [e(aq)] — a powerful reducing agent — are formed. Although the exact mechanism is not yet well understood, the researchers believe the solvated electrons cause a cascading reaction at the interface, whereby protons (H+) are reduced to hydrogen radicals (H.), and N2 is reduced to form NH3(aq).

In the laboratory, a Faradaic efficiency of up to 100% has been observed, and NH3 is produced with almost 100% selectivity at a production rate of 0.44 mg/h. These results and more details were reported last month in Science Advances, with lead authors Julie Renner, associate professor, and Mohan Sankaran, Goodrich Professor of Engineering Innovation, at the Case School of Engineering.

Although the research is still in its infancy, the researchers believe that the plasma electrolytic system may offer a scalable, highly selective alternative to the conventional Haber-Bosch (H-B) route to NH3. Further work is needed to reduce the power consumption — which is “considerably higher” than Haber-Bosch or existing electrosynthesis methods. But the plasma-based route could be economical for small-scale distributed networks, especially when coupled with renewable electricity sources, the researchers report.

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