Every year, around the world, about 200 million tons of ammonia are produced, mainly for agriculture. This component is even among the best-selling chemical fertilizers on the planet. Only, producing ammonia pollutes, and a lot. Its manufacture would be responsible for approximately 2% of global CO2 emissions, equivalent to the ratio attributed to air transport. This is linked to the technological process used, says Haber-Bosch, which consists of burning natural gas at very high temperatures in order to release and then recover the molecules necessary for the production of ammonia.
But a Toulouse startup could come and shake up this habit and considerably reduce the environmental footprint of this activity thanks to a new industrial process, as explained in a recent publication in the chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie. Named Swan-H, this CNRS spin-off intends to offer a green ammonia, in other words an ammonia generated by clean production.
No longer need natural gas to produce ammonia
It all started with a patent filed in September 2021, by Doctor Nicolas Mézailles, now co-founder of Swan-H. « He specializes in the activation of inert molecules. In the spring of 2021, he succeeded in activating 80% nitrogen present in the air, one of the two essential components of ammonia, thanks to boron radicals« , says Augustin de Bettignies, another co-founder of the startup. To complete the formula, the hydrogen atoms, another essential component of ammonia, are recovered in « opening water« , before mixing everything together.
“Today our process runs on electricity as the only energy source and is at least 10 times less energy intensive than the current ammonia production method. human size or even ammonia micro-factories, powered why not by solar energy in order to be as close as possible to the places of consumption », explains the man who is also chief business officer of Swan-H.
For the moment, around a hundred ammonia production sites have been identified around the world, mainly in the United States, Russia and Ukraine, before exporting the goods by ship. Developing production units locally using this new process could also reduce transport-related carbon emissions.
« If we project ourselves, we could also have an effect on inflation. Today, the price of ammonia is completely linked to the price of natural gas, which has increased considerably. And as the main outlet at the moment of l « Ammonia remains the fertilizer, so this has an indirect effect on the price of food. Having ammonia produced by a less energy-intensive process and without natural gas will necessarily cost less », explains Augustin de Bettignies.
The keystone of the hydrogen sector?
On the commercial level, the startup based at the Maison de la Recherche et de la Valorisation (MRV) in Toulouse with its four co-founders* and four employees wants to market its process to ammonia producers under a non-exclusive license.
The Swan-H teams will be reinforced by the arrival of two technicians in the coming months (Credits Swan-H).
« We are going to market our know-how on this chemical reactor, while disseminating this technology as widely as possible throughout the world and thus providing a solution for the planet. Our ambition is not to be bought out by a large group that will operate this technology alone and we will have to find financial partners who accept this logic », warns the co-founder.
After a year of existence, the young company has already raised 1.5 million euros from two Dutch business angels to finance its debut and its proof of concept validated by this publication in a scientific journal. Now, Swan-H is looking for around five million euros to finance its industrial prototype in the coming months, while having two technician positions open.
Beyond the production of fertilizers, this ammonia market offers great prospects for the young shoot based in Toulouse. Hybrid cargo ships are currently being developed to use ammonia as fuel. In addition, the latter has chemical properties that enable it to transport hydrogen energy efficiently and without great loss of energy. Enough to give ideas at a time when humanity seeks to make it the fuel of the future…
« Ammonia is an ideal energy carrier, but it has been overlooked due to the amount of energy required to produce it. Our low-energy ‘Mezailles’ process has the potential to position ammonia at the heart of ‘a new carbon-free energy system, making it possible to efficiently store renewable energies such as wind and solar,’ Steve van Zutphen, CEO of Swan-H, even recently declared in a press release.
* The four co-founders of Swan-H are Nicolas Mézailles (inventor from the CNRS, scientific director of the company), Steve van Zutphen (entrepreneur in chemistry and managing director), Willem Schipper (expert in industrial chemical processes and Technology & Industrialization Director of Swan-H) and Augustin de Bettignies.