Because of its many uses, ammonia is one of the most highly-produced inorganic chemicals. There are numerous large-scale ammonia production plants worldwide, producing a total of 131 million tonnes of ammonia in 2010. China produced 32.1% of the worldwide production, followed by India with 8.9%, Russia with 7.9%, and the United States with 6.3%. 80% or more of the ammonia produced is used for fertilizing agricultural crops. Ammonia is also used for the production of plastics, fibers, explosives, and intermediates for dyes and pharmaceuticals.
Before the start of World War I, most ammonia was obtained by the dry distillation of nitrogenous vegetable and animal products; by the reduction of nitrous acid and nitrites with hydrogen; and also by the decomposition of ammonium salts by alkaline hydroxides or by quicklime, the salt most generally used being the chloride (sal-ammoniac).
Today, most ammonia is produced on a large scale by the Haber-Bosch process with capacities of up to 3,300 metric tons per day.
Modern ammonia-producing plants
A typical modern ammonia-producing plant first converts natural gas (i.e., methane) or LPG (liquified petroleum gases such as propane and butane) or petroleum naphtha into gaseous hydrogen. The method for producing hydrogen from hydrocarbons is referred to as "Steam Reforming". The hydrogen is then combined with nitrogen to produce ammonia via the Haber-Bosch process.
Starting with a natural gas feedstock, the processes used in producing the hydrogen are:
- The first step in the process is to remove sulfur compounds from the feedstock because sulfur deactivates the catalysts used in subsequent steps. Sulfur removal requires catalytic hydrogenation to convert sulfur compounds in the feedstocks to gaseous hydrogen sulfide:
- H2 + RSH → RH + H2S(gas)
- The gaseous hydrogen sulfide is then absorbed and removed by passing it through beds of zinc oxide where it is converted to solid zinc sulfide:
- H2S + ZnO → ZnS + H2O
- Catalytic steam reforming of the sulfur-free feedstock is then used to form hydrogen plus carbon monoxide:
- CH4 + H2O → CO + 3H2
- The next step then uses catalytic shift conversion to convert the carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide and more hydrogen:
- CO + H2O → CO2 + H2
- The carbon dioxide is then removed either by absorption in aqueous ethanolamine solutions or by adsorption in pressure swing adsorbers (PSA) using proprietary solid adsorption media.
- The final step in producing the hydrogen is to use catalytic methanation to remove any small residual amounts of carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide from the hydrogen:
- CO + 3H2 → CH4 + H2O
- CO2 + 4H2 → CH4 +2H2O
To produce the desired end-product ammonia, the hydrogen is then catalytically reacted with nitrogen (derived from process air) to form anhydrous liquid ammonia. This step is known as the ammonia synthesis loop (also referred to as the Haber-Bosch process):
- 3H2 + N2 → 2NH3
The steam reforming, shift conversion, carbon dioxide removal and methanation steps each operate at absolute pressures of about 25 to 35 bar, and the ammonia synthesis loop operates at absolute pressures ranging from 60 to 180 bar depending upon which proprietary design is used. There are many engineering and construction companies that offer proprietary designs for ammonia synthesis plants. Haldor Topsoe of Denmark, Uhde GmbH of Germany, Ammonia Casale of Switzerland and Kellogg Brown & Root of the United States are among the most experienced companies in that field.
Sustainable ammonia production
Ammonia production depends on plentiful supplies of natural gas, a finite resource, to provide the hydrogen. Due to ammonia's critical role in intensive agriculture and other processes, sustainable production is desirable. This is possible by using renewable energy to generate hydrogen by electrolysis of water. This would be straightforward in a hydrogen economy by diverting some hydrogen production from fuel to feedstock use. For example, in 2002, Iceland produced 2,000 tons of hydrogen gas by electrolysis, using excess electricity production from its hydroelectric plants, primarily for the production of ammonia for fertilizer. The Vemork hydroelectric plant in Norway used its surplus electricity output to generate renewable ammonia from 1911 to 1971. In practice, natural gas will remain the major source of hydrogen for ammonia production as long as it is cheapest.
Waste water is often high in ammonia. Because discharging ammonia laden water into the environment can cause problems, nitrification is often necessary to remove the ammonia. This may be a potentially sustainable source of ammonia in the future because of its abundance and the need to remove it from the water anyway.
- United States Geological Survey publication
- Twygg, Martyn V. (1989). Catalyst Handbook (2nd Edition ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 1-874545-36-7.
- "Iceland launches energy revolution". BBC News. 2001-12-24. Archived from the original on 7 April 2008. Retrieved 2008-03-23.
- Bradley, David (2004-02-06). "A Great Potential: The Great Lakes as a Regional Renewable Energy Source" (PDF). Archived from the original on 29 October 2008. Retrieved 2008-10-04.
- Today's Hydrogen Production Industry
- Energy Use and Energy Intensity of the U.S. Chemical Industry, Report LBNL-44314, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Scroll down to page 39 of 40 PDF pages for a list of the ammonia plants in the USA)
- Ammonia: The Next Step includes a detailed process flow diagram.