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The Nium team
The Nium team. Image credit: Nium

Nium raises $3m seed round from AgFunder, DCVC to eliminate Haber-Bosch from ammonia production

June 6, 2023

[Disclosure: AFN’s parent company is AgFunder.]

  • UK-based nanotechnology startup Nium has raised a $3 million seed round to develop its “Green Ammonia on Demand” system that enables onsite synthesis of ammonia to slash both costs and emissions.
  • AgFunder led the round with participation from DCVC and existing investors from the UK and Europe including Carbon13.
  • Nium will use the funds to assemble its first small-scale, low-energy-consumption reactors — called “minions” — that can deliver ammonia at lower cost and carbon footprint.

‘We want to eliminate Haber-Bosch’

Around 70% of all ammonia produced goes into fertilizers, making it crucial for 50% the planet’s food production. But today’s ample supply of ammonia comes at a high cost to the environment, says Nium CEO and co-founder Lewis Jenkins.

Nearly all — 96% — of the world’s ammonia production relies on the Haber-Bosch process, the chemical reaction that converts hydrogen and nitrogen into ammonia. The Haber-Bosch process itself is extremely energy intensive, gobbling up nearly 2% of the world’s energy usage and spitting back out around 450 million metric tons of CO2 annually, which is more than any other chemical-making reaction in existence.

Nium is among a growing number of scientists and companies hoping to clean up ammonia production. The company says its key differentiator is its “low-temperature, low-pressure ammonia synthesis” that can deliver ammonia at “a fraction of the price and pollution of traditional ammonia production methods.”

“Our patents are filed on a technology that allows you to make ammonia without the costs and emissions,” says Jenkins. “We want to eliminate Haber-Bosch altogether.”

The Nium team
The Nium team. Image credit: Nium

Green ammonia on demand

Fertilizer and food are only one piece in a trifecta of areas Nium will address with its green ammonia technology.

Founded last year in Cambridge, England, Nium initially started out on farms, where it hoped to decentralize ammonia production, “but when we tried to get hydrogen delivered to these farms [for the process of making ammonia], it was a nightmare,” says Jenkins.

Hydrogen transportation requires high pressure and storage at cryogenic temperatures, to say nothing of the regulatory red tape surrounding the process.

Ammonia, on the other hand, has triple the volumetric density of compressed hydrogen and incurs less than one-fifth of the transport cost, says Jenkins. Its regulatory framework and infrastructure are also mature thanks to the role of ammonia in nitrogen-fixing for crops.

Nium is flipping the process and will initially provide hydrogen producers with its “Green Ammonia on Demand” system, placing Nium’s reactors onsite with these hydrogen producers, who can extract hydrogen from the ammonia as needed. Producers can move the reactors around as they choose, reducing the costs for long-term storage and long-distance transport.

“We spoke to hydrogen providers and discovered we had product market fit” around solving storage and transport issues, he adds. [Hydrogen] providers said they make a product they don’t like storing onsite. It costs energy to store this energy.”

The seed funding will allow Nium to assemble its first minions to produce green ammonia onsite for hydrogen producers. And by tackling the well-established hydrogen industry first, Nium hopes to scale its technology faster.

A ‘self-sustaining fuel and fertilizer source’

Nium’s long-term ambitions lie in food and farming.

Laying out his vision, Jenkins says, “You could set up a system on the farm, anywhere in the world, where you could use solar and wind to generate hydrogen. You would have a compressor that took nitrogen from the air, while the solar and wind would power the system to synthesize ammonia onsite with our reactor.”

This decentralized production system would be “a completely self-sustaining fuel and fertilizer source” for farms.

“Today the tomatoes from our supermarkets are typically grown with ammonia fertilizers, made by burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are burned again to ship the tomatoes to the supermarkets. And we burn fossil fuels yet again to cook them. Nium has the potential to eliminate emissions at every stage of this process,” adds Jenkins.

“Ammonia production is already crucial for 50% of the world’s food production, but current techniques emit megatons of CO2,” says Tom Shields, partner at AgFunder. “Nium’s revolutionary technology produces emission-free green ammonia, both as a feedstock for our food and an enabler for the hydrogen economy.”

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