The Dawn of Bio-Ammonia

Ammonia Energy Anniversary Issue: a “top five” development in technology advancement

In the last 12 months …
Bio-engineering has set its sights on ammonia. If we could deliver ammonia-emitting microbes to the soil we might make ammonia fertilizer obsolete; on the other hand, if we could farm them, we might establish ammonia as a new, carbon-free algal biofuel.

Could bacteria replace fertilizer? Could ammonia be a biofuel?
This week, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to researchers from Switzerland, the U.K., and the U.S. “for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution.” According to the announcement, this imaging technology “has moved biochemistry into a new era.”

Certainly, in the ammonia industry, a massive shift has taken place, underground and out of sight, years away from any commercial exploitation: ambient bacteria are threatening to take over the high pressure, high temperature world of chemical engineering.

Click to learn more. Source: Bayer.
Last month, global ag-input giant Bayer invested $100 million in a joint venture with MIT-spin off Ginkgo Bioworks to engineer nitrogen-fixing bacteria into seed coatings, potentially displacing ammonia from its fertilizer market.

I caused some raised eyebrows when I reported this as “probably the single most important announcement in the five years that I’ve been tracking sustainable ammonia production technologies.” However, I am unrepentant in my celebration of this announcement: I’ve seen good technologies fail to reach a market, and I’ve seen potentially good technologies forgotten after they failed to find investment. Bayer sells things: it has global market penetration, and it is looking for a new product. Once it has closed on its expected acquisition of Monsanto, Bayer will have an annual research and development budget of $2.5 billion. I believe this technology advancement to be important because technology plus finance plus marketing equals sales.

I’ve also been writing about research in the Philippines focused on the production of ammonia from bacteria, similar to the ideas behind production of algal biofuels. This is almost the opposite of Bayer’s proposed technology but together they represent the future frontier for industrial production: bio-chemistry.

Just a few months before the Bayer-Ginkgo announcement, Daniel Nocera at Harvard announced his research on bio-engineered molecules to produce ammonia. His announcement, illustrated by fat-from-microbe-fertilized radishes, was the first of many on the subject of bio-ammonia (another yesterday), marking this as one of the fastest-moving scientific arenas: new tools, big problems to solve, and very big markets to sell into.

Ammonia Energy reporting

A year in review
To mark the first anniversary of Ammonia Energy, we reviewed the most important developments from the last 12 months. This “top ten” list spans two areas: five are technology advances that will arguably produce the most important opportunities for ammonia energy, and five are economic implementation steps that are arguably the most significant moves toward real-world deployment.

Technology advancement:

Economic implementation:

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