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Physcial Sciences Division
Research Highlights

November 2020

Perspective on Oxidation of Ammonia

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Ammonia, NH3, is an essential chemical, produced globally from the Haber process at a massive scale (165 million tons annually). A familiar component of strong household cleaners, ammonia is an energetically dense molecule that primarily turns into the fertilizers that feed the world. However, its potential for other applications requires knowledge on how to release the energy stored in the N-H bonds. A new article in the Journal of the American Chemical Society from CME researchers provides a perspective on the use of molecular catalysts to do just that by oxidizing ammonia.

Few people think of ammonia as a potential fuel, yet the energy from the three N-H bonds in NH3 can be extracted just like the energy stored in C-H and C-C bonds in familiar fossil fuels. Ammonia is an attractive liquid fuel because it is carbon-free and avoids generating CO2 when used. This is not a new idea; its possible use in combustion has been evaluated for decades. Unfortunately, ammonia combustion produces a different, serious pollutant, NOx, limiting its use as a traditional fuel. There are alternatives to combustion, with fuel cells that use ammonia as a promising alternative that directly converts chemical energy to electricity with significantly higher efficiency.

Recent efforts in the CME have focused on developing the fundamental science needed to design molecular catalysts for oxidizing ammonia. The perspective article evaluates the energetics of each individual step in the complex reaction, with three N-H bonds cleaved and an N≡N bond formed. Using molecular catalysts for the oxidation of ammonia is an emerging research topic attracting increasing interest because molecular catalysts can be studied in detail to facilitate in-depth understanding of the individual chemical steps. In the perspective article, they discuss the energies affiliated with each individual step in NH3 oxidation and provide guidelines for developing new catalysts for these reactions.

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