June 23, 2017 2:00 pm JST

Scientist, Ajinomoto bring whiff of change to making ammonia

New production method from Japanese researcher and food company may slash costs

TAITO KUROSE, Nikkei staff writer

Ammonia storage tanks at an Ajinomoto plant on Japan's southern island of Kyushu

TOKYO -- A Japanese researcher and a food processor working to develop a new way to synthesize ammonia that is much more efficient and cost-effective than the current method, which itself is regarded by some as one of the 20th century's most important inventions.

Hideo Hosono, a professor of materials science at Tokyo Institute of Technology, and condiment maker Ajinomoto are leading the research, with hopes of developing practical applications within a few years.

Global production of ammonia totals around 160 million tons a year. It is used to make fertilizers, food and for other industrial purposes. Nitrogen, one of its components, is essential to plant growth. Work is also proceeding on turning ammonia into a fuel, so anything that allows it to be produced more cheaply and easily will draw worldwide attention.

The Haber-Bosch process currently dominates commercial production of ammonia. This process combines hydrogen and nitrogen from the atmosphere and is sometimes described as creating "bread from air," in homage to its importance in farming. Hosono's team has come up with a process that it believes will take ammonia production "beyond Haber-Bosch."

The conventional production method requires high temperature and pressure to drive the chemical reaction, necessitating large ammonia plants. Hosono's method, which enables synthesis at low temperature and pressure, means plants can be smaller. That, in turn, would allow ammonia to be made on site at food processing or pharmaceutical plants, potentially lowering costs.

The key is the C12A7 electride catalyst the researchers have discovered. Hosono has already established his reputation as an innovator: He was the developer of the IGZO transparent semiconductor used in liquid crystal display panels.

Minding the cost

Ajinomoto's interest in the work is driven by its bottom line. The food processor uses large quantities of ammonia to produce amino acids, which are contained in the company's namesake seasoning. The company relies on outside suppliers for its ammonia, which means it needs trucks to transport it and tanks to store it. These do not come cheap. The company's partnership with Hosono came about after Ajinomoto engineers heard a talk from the professor on the possibilities of the new technology.

Takaaki Nishii, Ajinomoto's president, said storage and transport account for "more than half" the company's ammonia procurement costs. If it can produce its own ammonia, those costs will fall. Ajinomoto believes it would also cut the cost of making amino acids. The new technique would also be more environmentally friendly: no trucks carting the stuff around means fewer carbon dioxide emissions.

Work on practical application of the technology is proceeding at Tsubame BHB, a Tokyo-based joint venture set up by Ajinomoto, Hosono and No. 1 UMI Limited Partnership, which is run by Universal Materials Incubator, a Tokyo-based venture-capital fund. The partners hope to bring small ammonia production facilities into service at amino acid plants in Japan and elsewhere by 2021 at the earliest.

Out of the lab

Hosono stresses the need to apply the research findings in production. "Otherwise, we would be dragged into price war and be defeated," he said. "That is our fate."

Because materials chemistry relies heavily on basic research, the road to mass production is often long and difficult. Many projects fail for lack of funds to move to commercial scale.

The latest collaboration between a renowned researcher and a big manufacturer thus has implications for both industry and academia in Japan. The central government has stressed the importance of turning basic research into new businesses. It is currently considering submitting legislation to the Diet next year to allow government research institutions to invest directly in startups.

Ajinomoto Co., Inc.

Japan

Market(Ticker): TKS(2802)
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Industry:
Consumer Non-Durables
Food: Specialty/Candy
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