Nov. 28, 2023

Finding alternatives to century-old industrial chemical process brings joy to PhD candidate

Alejandro J. Cuellar De Lucio wins Vanier Graduate Scholarship for researching eco-friendly method of producing ammonia
Alejandro J. Cuellar De Lucio
Alejandro J. Cuellar De Lucio works in the Piers Group chemistry lab. Nadine Sander-Green, Faculty of Science

The Haber-Bosch process: three words everyone should know. The process, after all, is considered one of the most important inventions of the 20th century. But if you’re not immersed in the world of chemistry, engineering or agriculture, you may have never heard of the Haber-Bosh process, which transforms nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia — largely used for fertilizer production.

“It’s been over a hundred years of humans using this transformation to create the fertilizer that we need to provide food for billions of people,” says Alejandro J. Cuellar De Lucio, a PhD candidate in chemistry who works in the Piers Group, which conducts research on organometallic and inorganic chemistry for a variety of applications.

The Haber-Bosch process is the workhorse for ammonia production, and ammonia is an essential commodity in our world. Around 80 per cent of total production is used for fertilizer, which corresponds to about 50 per cent of the world’s food production. Today, Canada supplies around 12 per cent of the world’s fertilizer.

No large-scale alternatives to ammonia

Yet the process was invented in 1913, many decades before the world was concerned about how industrial processes affect our climate. Synthesizing ammonia requires very high temperatures and pressures. The overall process is not only incredibly intensive in energy, but it also creates carbon dioxide (CO2) as a byproduct. For every molecule of ammonia produced, approximately two molecules of CO2 are made.

“About two per cent of all the energy we produce in the world is consumed by this process annually,” says Cuellar De Lucio. “At this point, we cannot say, OK, let’s just stop all the production of ammonia, because there isn’t any other alternative that can compete at such a scale.”

That’s where Cuellar De Lucio — and researchers from the Piers Group — come in. They are working on the development of catalysts to produce ammonia from the activation of nitrogen gas at room temperatures and atmospheric pressures, which would emit less CO2.

Cuellar De Lucio recently won the highly competitive Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship for his research related to this project.

“If we can do this transformation in mild conditions at industrial scales, CO2 production will decrease,” he says.

Focus on earth-abundant materials

First, they must find a new catalyst for the process. The Piers Group is focusing on earth-abundant metals, such as titanium, which are cheap and non-toxic and have been largely ignored in this kind of research.

“It happens to be that Canada has big reservoirs of titanium, and titanium is promising at transforming nitrogen and hydrogen into ammonia under mild conditions, so it just makes sense,” he says.

The Piers Group is also looking at the opposite of ammonia synthesis: how ammonia can be activated and transformed into nitrogen and hydrogen and used as a fuel source. If the group is successful in finding a more eco-friendly way of making ammonia, they want to use it for other clean technologies, as well.

First though, Cuellar De Lucio, stresses, “we have to attack the root” and find alternative ways of producing ammonia with the development of new catalysts.

Although the project has a long way to go from the chemistry lab to a new large-scale industrial process, Cuellar De Lucio knows that this kind of work could have an enormous impact on our planet’s CO2 emissions. After all, the Haber-Bosch process emits more CO2 than any other industrial process.

“It’s time that science considers the side effects that we are creating. Everything is connected. It’s so important that we know what the technologies or reactions are emitting to the atmosphere.”

He sees his work as a not just for him, but as a collective goal for future chemists to work on. Although creating a new, more eco-friendly process to the Haber-Bosch would be a groundbreaking success for Cuellar De Lucio, UCalgary, Canada and the entire world, on a day-to day basis the work is just as gruelling as any other research project with the potential for such widespread impact.

 “I have had to become okay with failure in research, because we are working in the dark. We are doing things without instructions. We might not fully reach the goal, but at the same time, we are creating knowledge for the next scientists. We are transforming failure into knowledge to get one step closer to a discovery.”

 Although he sees winning the Vanier scholarship as just “tip of the iceberg” with many years of hard work ahead, it did give him a renewed belief that he is on the right path.

Chemistry answers the questions

Being on the right path is a blessing for anyone, but especially Cuellar De Lucio. His family migrated from Mexico to the United States when he was a young teenager. As an undocumented immigrant who didn’t know English and lacked resources, there were many times he felt deeply discouraged about his future.

“I learned many big lessons during those years. I learned that when one door is closed, you need to go and look for another one. This has been a big driver for my academic journey, my research career and my life as an immigrant. It’s why I resonate so much with science.”

It wasn’t until community college in 2015 that he fell in love with chemistry. That’s when he realized chemistry answered the questions — questions about nature and life in general — he had held on to for his entire life.

Fast forward almost a decade, and Cuellar De Lucio has won one of the one of the most competitive and prestigious graduate awards in Canada.

“This scholarship is life changing and I’m incredibly grateful and thankful. I’ve watched the progress I’ve made from my days in community college and my earlier life in general. I’ve learned again and again, you have to be patient and not give up.” 

Sign up for UToday

Sign up for UToday

Delivered to your inbox — a daily roundup of news and events from across the University of Calgary's 14 faculties and dozens of units

Thank you for your submission.