Pioneering on-site ammonia production: Collaboration with Ajinomoto and UMI

Professor Hideo Hosono

Ajinomoto Co., Inc., UMI, and Tokyo Institute of Technology Professors Establish New Company to implement the World’s First On-Site Production of Ammonia
—Targeting low-cost, stable supply of amino acids and other fermentation materials, and their applications in agricultural fertilizers—

Ajinomoto Co., Inc. and the No. 1 UMI Limited Partnership managed and operated by Universal Materials Incubator Co., Ltd., Professor Hideo Hosono, Director of Materials Research Center for Element Strategy at Tokyo Institute of Technology, have established Tsubame BHB Co., Ltd. (“Tsubame BHB”), which strives to achieve practical applications for the world’s first on-site ammonia synthesis systems, with the support of Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), and using applying catalysts developed by Hosono’s research group. The new company began operations on April 25, 2017.

Amino acids and proteins are the building blocks of life. Each contains nitrogen1, an essential element for biological function. Ammonia is an important source of nitrogen, and over 160 million tons of ammonia are produced annually worldwide. Approximately 80% of this volume is used as raw material for fertilizers, and the remaining 20% is used for a variety of food products, pharmaceuticals, and chemical products.

Today, ammonia is mainly produced using the Haber-Bosch process, a method invented over 100 years ago. The Haber-Bosch process, which is used broadly throughout the world, is an outstanding production technology that enables synthesis of ammonia using only nitrogen from the air and hydrogen2 obtained mainly from natural gas. There are issues in the use of the Haber-Bosch process, however, in that reactions require high-temperature and high-pressure conditions, so concentrated, high-volume production must be undertaken at a single large-scale plant that consumes huge amounts of energy and entailing substantial capital investment. Furthermore, transporting ammonia from production sites to areas of demand throughout the world also necessitates specialized transport equipment and storage facilities, resulting in considerable logistics costs.

In response to these issues, Prof. Hosono and his group discovered and invented a catalyst that differs completely from catalysts used in the Haber-Bosch process, through the R&D Project “Materials Science and Application of Electrides” being undertaken as part of JST‘s Strategic Basic Research Programs (ACCEL)3. This catalyst enables highly efficient ammonia synthesis under low-temperature and low-pressure conditions. These low-temperature and low-pressure reaction conditions make it possible to produce ammonia even in small-scale plants, where production was considered difficult in the past. In the future, the practical application of these technologies is expected to form the foundation of a model for the world’s first on-site ammonia production, through which ammonia can be produced where it is needed, and in the volumes required.

Ajinomoto Co. produces various types of amino acids, including glutamic acid, and other fermentation materials, by using large volumes of ammonia as a raw material, so the company has long been captivated by the revolutionary fundamental technologies discovered and invented by Prof. Hosono and his group to achieve the low-cost, stable supply of ammonia. As such, Ajinomoto Co. has been involved in joint development targeting the practical application of these technologies. In collaboration with Tsubame BHB, Ajinomoto Co. has been working toward achieving on-site ammonia production at its own plants, with the intention of using this as a driver to increase the cost competitiveness of its fermentation materials, and to contribute to coexistence with the Earth by reducing energy consumption and minimizing environmental impact from the production and transport of the fermentation sub raw material.

Prof. Hosono of Tokyo Institute of Technology will serve as a technical advisor for Tsubame BHB, and support the development of applications for the new catalyst. In addition, joint research by Tokyo Institute of Technology and Tsubame BHB will further promote R&D targeting high-efficiency catalysts. JST and Tokyo Institute of Technology license patents for the new catalysts developed by Hosono’s research group to Tsubame BHB as a foundation for on-site ammonia production technologies, and support Tsubame BHB’s operations.

UMI will provide Tsubame BHB with the capital required to undertake its business operations in the future, and will also provide management support, for example by dispatching directors and other management staffs, and by strengthening the business development structure. Through these activities, UMI will strive to create success cases in the social implementation of promising academic seeds in the fields of materials and chemistry, and will contribute to the formation of ecosystems in these fields.

Tsubame BHB will introduce these technologies at Ajinomoto Co.’s fermentation material plants worldwide, and will aim to implement the world’s first on-site ammonia production by around 2021. In the future, in collaboration with Ajinomoto Co. as well as a variety of partner companies, Tsubame BHB will strive to expand applications in areas such as agricultural fertilizers, food products, pharmaceuticals, and chemical products, contributing to society through the creation of sustainable, environment-friendly production systems.