Nanyang Technological University researchers have devised a new less energy intensive method to make a key compound in nitrogen fertilizer, and that may pave the way to a more sustainable agricultural practice as global food demand rises.

The method devised by NTU researchers produces a compound known as ‘urea’, which is a natural product found in the urine of mammals, and an essential compound for fertilizers that is mass-produced industrially to increase crop yields.

However, the current Haber-Bosch process used to make urea is energy-intensive, requiring temperatures of 500° Celsius and pressures of two hundred times sea-level atmospheric pressure. It creates significant CO2 emissions, by using approximately 2% of global energy annually.

Seeking a more sustainable and energy efficient method, the team found a way to greatly improve an existing alternative approach to urea production known as electrocatalysis – using electricity to drive chemical reactions in a solution.

Using the nanomaterial indium hydroxide as a catalyst, the researchers reacted nitrate and carbon dioxide and found that the process formed urea five times more efficiently than previously reported attempts using electrocatalysis, specifically by causing the chemical reaction to take place in a ‘highly selective’ manner.

Co-lead author of the study, Professor Alex Yan from the NTU School of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) said, “Our method essentially manipulates the chemical reaction process to become ‘highly selective’. By picking a better catalyst, we helped the nitrate ions and carbon dioxide molecules to optimally position themselves to facilitate urea formation, while suppressing the creation of unnecessary by-products like hydrogen, leading to higher efficiency and better urea yields.”

The study findings have been published in the journal Nature Sustainability, and the alternative urea production method has been patented by NTU.

This new method to produce urea may inspire the future design of sustainable chemistry approaches and contribute to ‘greener’ agricultural practices to feed the world’s growing population, said the research team.

The study reflects the university’s commitment to address humanity’s grand challenges on sustainability as part of the NTU 2025 strategic plan, which seeks to accelerate the translation of research discoveries into innovations that mitigate our impact on the environment.

As a proof of concept, the scientists tested the efficiency of their devised method in the lab and found that the approach achieved a urea yield of 53.4%, which is competitive with the current Haber-Bosch industrial method, that was first demonstrated in 1910.

The Haber-Bosch, a two-step thermal process, is fossil fuel reliant and can only happen at specific high temperatures, and high-pressure conditions. First, nitrogen and hydrogen are combined to make ammonia. Carbon dioxide is then bonded with it to make urea. By comparison, the new NTU approach is more environmentally friendly and simpler. It uses nitrate – a compound with bonds that require less energy to break – carbon dioxide, and hydrogen to directly trigger urea formation under room temperature.

The new method is simple enough to be adopted at both large and small scales, noted the research team. The electrocatalytic device could be easily operated by farmers to generate their own urea for fertilizers. The method could also one day be powered entirely by renewable energy.

First author of the research, Dr Lyu Chade, Research Fellow from the NTU School of MSE said, “With advances in solar technology, we may potentially use sunlight to power the electrocatalysis process in future, which can further help lower global emissions.”

For the next steps, the research team is aiming to achieve even higher yield results and to refine the catalytic selectivity, by exploring catalysts that would trigger faster reactions. They also plan to find a way to power the process using solar energy and to create a prototype device to demonstrate scaled up urea production.

The international research team includes researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, University of Science and Technology of China and Harbin Institute of Technology, China.


This is an excellent example of great results from looking into an established energy intensive process. The potential here might seem small at 2% of annual fuels use, but that come to almost 2 million barrels of oil per day – no small thing at all. The question that comes to mind is just where would all the nitrate that might be needed get produced and at what price.

Urea is a nitrogen fertilizer. Its essential for food, fuel and fiber production. No nitrogen fertilizer would be catastrophic to hundreds of millions if not billions of people. The work by this team at NTU is far more important than one might first think.


3 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on October 14, 2021 9:23 AM

    Every day I read of another fertilizer plant shuttered because of the high price of Natural Gas. 50% of third world agriculture depends on imported fertilizer. And, even if the fertilizer is available, shipping capacity may not be.

    I feel like I am watching a derailing train and nothing I can do can stop it. The lack of fertilizer is going to hurt this year’s crop. Next year, the crop will be much worse.

    This year hunger. Next year FAMINE.

  2. Matt Musson on October 20, 2021 9:05 AM

    China announced yesterday that they are restricting export of fertilizer. That effectively means that the Chinese are expecting wide spread shortages of fertilizer in their internal agricultural sector.

    Very sad.

  3. Brian Westenhaus on October 20, 2021 11:08 PM

    It is alarming, quite alarming. If the administration manages to not make it worse, then the market will adjust to the demands. Perhaps the media and political sectors will finally realize that every city has an immense fertilizer resource at the end of every sewer. Lots of urea, phosphorus and potassium simply gets “disposed of” quietly. Except for Milwaukee, home of the fertilizer “Milorganite.”

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