Ammonia Based Fertilizer: The $11 Billion Problem Seeking a Solution

One of the more interesting problems for quantum computing is finding an improved nitrogen-fixation process for creating ammonia based fertilizer.  The current process to create ammonia (NH3) from atmospheric nitrogen (N2) is called the Haber-Bosch process and was first commercialized by BASF in 1913.  This process is still in use today and has a huge impact as stated in a study by the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (part of the U.S. Department of Energy).

Referred to by some as the most important technological advance of the 20th century….Between 3 and 5 percent of the world’s annual natural gas production – roughly 1 to 2 percent of the world’s annual energy supply – is converted using the process to produce more than 500 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer, which is believed to sustain about 40 percent of the world’s 7 billion people. Approximately half of the protein in today’s humans originated with nitrogen fixed through the Haber-Bosch process.

Chemists have been trying to improve the efficiency of this process for decades, but have had limited success.  They believe that there may exist some magic recipe that will allow them to implement the nitrogen fixation process much more efficiently and retire the Haber-Bosch process after more than 100 years of use.  What bugs them is that some bacteria are able to manufacture ammonia at ambient conditions without natural gas using a nitrogenase enzyme, but they don’t exactly understand how the bacteria do this.  And the bacteria aren’t talking!

So this is where quantum computing comes in.  If we are able to have a quantum computer do a quantum simulation of all the interactions at the atomic level, we may be able to help the chemists find the right formula to create a better process.  Microsoft and several other researchers have already put extensive research into this problem.  You can read Microsoft’s blog post about their research here.  After several years of work they started with an algorithm that would have taken 24 billion years on a quantum computer and ultimately streamlined it so it would only take, in theory, an hour to solve.  What’s more. they estimate that they would only need a quantum computer with a few hundred qubits which may very well be achievable in the next few years.  Other papers describing this problem can be found from Dartmouth College and the U.S. Department of Energy (slides 16 and 17).

But up until now no one has stated what the potential dollar impact would be for solving this problem.   This is what we will do in the rest of this article.  The BP energy company just put out a good report titled BP Statistical Review of World Energy and we will use this as the basis for making a rough estimate of the natural gas cost needed to manufacture ammonia.

BP reported that in 2017 the world consumed 3670.4 billion cubic meters of natural gas.  When converted into energy this would be the equivalent of 127.7 quadrillion BTUs.  The average selling price of natural gas had a wide range with the lowest being Canada at $1.60 USD per million BTUs and the highest shown as the UK at $5.80 USD per million BTUs.  The U.S. price was $2.96 per million BTUs.  If we assume the worldwide average is near the U.S. price, then multiplying this out it shows that approximately $381 billion was spent on natural gas in 2017.  So if 3% of this is used for the Haber-Bosch process, this indicates a cost of $11.4 billion is spent every year on natural gas to create ammonia for use in fertilizer and an enormous potential cost savings opportunity with quantum simulations.

The point of this analysis is to show one area where there could be a big economic payoff in quantum computing.  Creating a better process for nitrogen fixation and reducing the need for natural gas would have a huge impact on the world’s energy supply as well as the overall cost of food and would quickly pay off any investments that have been made in quantum computing to date.

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