Hundred years ago, the industrial realization of the famous Haber Bosch process for ammonia became the beginning of the end for the Birkeland Eyde electric arc process.
The Haber Bosch process took advantage of the ammonia synthesis patent from 1908. The ammonia synthesis patent is utilizing the fact that a nitrogen molecule can only be fixed to a catalyst in an oxygen free atmosphere. At high pressure (300 bar) and temperature (700K) hydrogen and nitrogen were reacted to ammonia over an iron catalyst. The subsequent process stream is cooled – the ammonia is condensing and extracted from the continuous process loop – where the unreacted hydrogen and nitrogen is recycled back to the synthesis feed.
The ammonia synthesis relies on the cost of hydrogen. Ammonia was already the basis for BASF’s chemical business hundred years ago. Hydrogen became readily available from all kinds of fossil fuels. (See xxxx curve of development) The steam reforming process, where water and methane is converted to hydrogen and nitrogen in the right stoichiometric ratio is one the most elegant processes ever developed. It’s present weakness is the dependence of methane at low cost. The global cost of methane and economy of scale is driving the ammonia business.
The process licensors and operators of ammonia plants are presenting the same technical challenges as was overcome by Dr. Bosch hundred years ago. Hydrogen blistering and cracking of high pressure equipment is still dominating the agenda.
In India and China, gas is the Achilles heel in the fertilizer production. The ammonia process can compete for gas with any industrial application, but is loosing against the public demand for heating, cooking and cooling. The gas networks represent the end of cheap gas to the ammonia industry. We are in peak oil, peak gas and peak ammonia.
Which means: After hundred years the Birkeland Eyde process strikes back! N2 Applied’s mission.
Knut Hamsun is wrong – even after 100 years all is not forgotten.