Clean energy from ammonia: UW discovery a step toward carbon-free economy | Science & Environment

“We weren’t looking for this at all,” he said. “I’ve been making exotic molecules all my life. I never thought I’d do something that had any practical implications.”

UW-Madison researchers discovered that ammonia, when combined with a ruthenium catalyst, spontaneously produces nitrogen, releasing electrons that can be harnessed as clean energy.

Berry wanted to test how ammonia would react with diruthenium, a pair of ruthenium atoms bonded together with other molecules. He thought if he applied an electrical current, the ammonia would oxidize, releasing nitrogen.

Christian Wallen, who was working in the lab as a postdoctoral researcher, figured out there was no need to add energy.

“If you just add ammonia to this complex, it spits out nitrogen on its own,” Berry said.

Mike Trenerry, one of Berry’s current graduate students and co-author of the paper, figured out how to pull the electrons off and repeat the reaction by exposing the catalyst to oxygen.

“What this means for us is the research has cleared an important energetic hurdle,” Trenerry said. “We’ve managed to keep the thermodynamics on our side.”

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Historical note

The idea of using ammonia as fuel is not new.

“Germans were forced to do it during World War II,” Berry said. “You put ammonia into internal combustion engines and sure enough they run.”

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