Transforming industrial catalysts with computational design.
Among history’s world-changing innovations, the manufacture of ammonia—as the main ingredient in nitrogen fertilizers—has been among the most significant, transforming global agriculture and supporting a population boom that added 6 billion people to the planet. But the 180 million metric tons of ammonia now produced each year comes at a significant environmental cost: its manufacture—using the century-old Haber-Bosch process—is attributable to 1% of global carbon emissions. Yet demand is growing. Ammonia is a leading candidate for a next-generation shipping fuel, potentially replacing another 3% of carbon emissions, but only if its own carbon intensity can be reduced. “The ammonia production process has been optimized to work with fossil fuels, and for a century there’s been no motivation to change that,” says Jacob Grose, co-founder and CEO of Copernic Catalysts. “We need to turn the discovery process around, not just for ammonia but for a whole class of thermochemical catalysts.”
Copernic, a company whose co-founders are veterans of industrial heavyweights BASF and ExxonMobil, has developed a platform that uses cutting-edge computational analysis to transform the manufacture of commodity chemicals for a zero-carbon future. With an initial focus on ammonia, Copernic plans to use in silico modeling, supported by a deep understanding of industrial chemistry, to develop a new class of thermochemical catalysts. “We no longer need to rely on our intuition alone,” says Aruna Ramkrishnan, co-founder and CTO of Copernic. “Using our new understanding of chemistry, paired with today’s computer design tools, we can explore entirely new categories of materials than were ever possible in the conventional trial-and-error, Edisonian, approach.” In the same way that computational drug discovery revolutionized the pharmaceutical industry twenty years ago, Copernic has identified a broad pipeline of bulk industrial catalysts ready to be re-designed for a post-fossil-fuel age.
As the most carbon-intensive industrial chemical, ammonia is Copernic’s first target for transformation. Since the German chemist Fritz Haber and industrialist Carl Bosch developed and scaled the process of creating ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen in the years around World War I, its manufacture has been a keystone of the global food system. But breaking apart the strong triple bonds that connect nitrogen atoms has always required high pressures (of up to 150 bars), and high temperatures (of around 400 degrees celsius). Even with contemporary industrial methods, the associated energy requirements means that each ton of ammonia produced entails the release of two to three tons of carbon dioxide, depending on whether gas or coal is used as a feedstock. Copernic’s innovation replaces Haber-Bosch’s traditional iron ore catalyst with a next generation catalyst that can drop-in to the world’s existing ammonia manufacturing infrastructure. Copernic’s novel catalyst drastically reduces the temperatures and pressures required to make ammonia—thereby slashing the energy requirements, bringing down the cost of production, and opening the door to low-cost zero-carbon ammonia.