Lessons learned: undergraduate student contributes to green energy research

Monday, July 25, 2022
XiaoYu Wu and Rithu Muthalathu
Rithu Muthalathu gained a lot more than insight into the subject at hand when he recently took part in his first academic research study exploring ammonia as a green energy carrier.

A chemical engineering fourth-year undergraduate student, Muthalathu also learned that research is a journey with a way of taking you in unexpected directions. He commented,

"It was a unique experience as an undergraduate student," he commented

 Muthalathu was supervised by XiaoYu Wu, an assistant professor who is cross-appointed to the Department of Chemical Engineering and runs the research group Greener Production. Wu enlisted Muthalathu to help while looking for undergraduates interested in his research on power-to-ammonia.

A paper on the research – which examines the economic risks and benefits of using ammonia as fertilizer, for energy storage during peak hours and in export trade sectors – is now available online and will be published in the journal iScience in August.

Ammonia is a commodity that can also be used to store electricity. Canada, a large exporter of ammonia, currently produces it from natural gas feedstock, which emits high levels of CO2 gas.  Wu aims to create an electricity-to-ammonia process that is both environmentally friendly and cost-effective. 

"The goal of this research is to position Canada as a low-carbon hydrogen exporter," Wu said."Ammonia is a good pathway for that."

Muthalathu’s role was to conduct a techno-economic analysis. He and Wu investigated how factors such as energy efficiency and capital expenditure affect the costs of combining hydrogen and nitrogen in a chemical reactor to create ammonia. Water and air are used as feedstock. Electricity is stored in the heating value of ammonia and can be used in a fuel cell to create energy that does not produce carbon dioxide.

Ammonia is also commonly used in fertilizers and generates one percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, so it would be significant if eco-friendly fertilizer could be produced in novel methods. Muthalathu said of the experience,

"I presented my findings and abstract at the International Green Energy conference 2021, "Muthalathu said of the experience. "Professor Wu was very supportive. He was pushing me and really encouraged me to go."

Wu is hopeful that this process of creating ammonia has better roundtrip efficiency for energy storage. The research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the University of Waterloo Start-Up Grant.

Wu is developing electrochemical ammonia conversion technology based on solid-state membranes and plans to collaborate with a University of Waterloo economist Alain-Désiré Nimubona to further his study on the economic feasibility of producing green ammonia.