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Researchers develop earth-abundant photocatalyst for conversion of ammonia into hydrogen

Using only inexpensive earth-abundant raw materials, a team from Rice’s Laboratory for Nanophotonics, Syzygy Plasmonics Inc. and Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment have created a scalable photocatalyst that can convert ammonia into hydrogen fuel. The research is published in Science.

We show that plasmonic photocatalysis can transform a thermally unreactive, earth-abundant transition metal into a catalytically active site under illumination. Fe active sites in a Cu-Fe antenna-reactor complex achieve efficiencies very similar to Ru for the photocatalytic decomposition of ammonia under ultrafast pulsed illumination. When illuminated with light-emitting diodes rather than lasers, the photocatalytic efficiencies remain comparable, even when the scale of reaction increases by nearly three orders of magnitude. This result demonstrates the potential for highly efficient, electrically driven production of hydrogen from an ammonia carrier with earth-abundant transition metals.

—Yuan et al.

The research follows government and industry investment to create infrastructure and markets for carbon-free liquid ammonia fuel that will not contribute to greenhouse warming. Liquid ammonia is easy to transport and packs a lot of energy, with one nitrogen and three hydrogen atoms per molecule. The new catalyst breaks those molecules into hydrogen gas and nitrogen gas, the largest component of Earth’s atmosphere. Unlike traditional catalysts, it doesn’t require heat; it harvests energy from light.

Transition metals like iron are typically poor thermocatalysts. This work shows they can be efficient plasmonic photocatalysts. It also demonstrates that photocatalysis can be efficiently performed with inexpensive LED photon sources.

—co-author Naomi Halas

This discovery paves the way for sustainable, low-cost hydrogen that could be produced locally rather than in massive centralized plants.

—Peter Nordlander, co-author

The best thermocatalysts are made from platinum and related precious metals such as palladium, rhodium and ruthenium. Halas and Nordlander spent years developing light-activated, or plasmonic, metal nanoparticles. The best of these are also typically made with precious metals like silver and gold.

Following their 2011 discovery of plasmonic particles that give off short-lived, high-energy electrons called “hot carriers,” they discovered in 2016 that hot-carrier generators could be married with catalytic particles to produce hybrid “antenna-reactors,” where one part harvested energy from light and the other part used the energy to drive chemical reactions with surgical precision.

1205_PHOTOCAT 3 rn

A reaction cell (left) and the photocatalytic platform (right) used on tests of copper-iron plasmonic photocatalysts for hydrogen production from ammonia at Syzygy Plasmonics in Houston. All reaction energy for the catalysis came from LEDs that produced light with a wavelength of 470 nanometers. Courtesy of Syzygy Plasmonics, Inc.

Halas, Nordlander, their students and collaborators have worked for years to find non-precious metal alternatives for both the energy-harvesting and reaction-speeding halves of antenna reactors. The new study is a culmination of that work. In it, Halas, Nordlander, Rice alumnus Hossein Robatjazi, Princeton engineer and physical chemist Emily Carter, and others show that antenna-reactor particles made of copper and iron are highly efficient at converting ammonia. The copper, energy-harvesting piece of the particles captures energy from visible light.

In the absence of light, the copper-iron catalyst exhibited about 300 times lower reactivity than copper-ruthenium catalysts, which is not surprising given that ruthenium is a better thermocatalyst for this reaction. Under illumination, the copper-iron showed efficiencies and reactivities that were similar to and comparable with those of copper-ruthenium.

—Hossein Robatjazi, chief scientist at Houston-based Syzygy Plasmonics

Syzygy has licensed Rice’s antenna-reactor technology, and the study included scaled-up tests of the catalyst in the company’s commercially available, LED-powered reactors. In laboratory tests at Rice, the copper-iron catalysts had been illuminated with lasers. The Syzygy tests showed the catalysts retained their efficiency under LED illumination and at a scale 500 times larger than the lab setup.

Halas and Nordlander are Syzygy co-founders and hold an equity stake in the company.

The research was supported by the Welch Foundation (C-1220, C-1222), the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (FA9550-15-1-0022), Syzygy Plasmonics, the Department of Defense and Princeton University.


  • Yigao Yuan, Linan Zhou, Hossein Robatjazi, Junwei Lucas Bao, Jingyi Zhou, Aaron Bayles, Lin Yuan, Minghe Lou, Minhan Lou, Suman Khatiwada, Emily A. Carter, Peter Nordlander, and Naomi J. Halas (2022) “Earth-abundant photocatalyst for H2 generation from NH3 with light-emitting diode illumination” Science doi: 10.1126/science.abn5636



The use of ammonia with local conversion to hydrogen greatly simplifies distribution issues.


Looks useful.
I wonder how much energy it takes and how bulky the systems will be.
It is a pity they can't split methane (or xAne) in a similar manner.


You need hydrogen to make ammonia. WTF is the point of turning ammonia into hydrogen?

ron ingman

The point is to transport stored energy.


If you can make "green" ammonia which requires "green" hydrogen, the "green" ammonia should just be used for fertilizer, etc. There is far more market for ammonia that there is current ability to make "green" hydrogen to make "green" ammonia.



I dunno how folk are supposed to develop new technology, if they were not supposed to use the product for anything but the most obvious usage.

Of course one for one replacement of ammonia with a green alternative is both the most obvious way forward, and likely much of early production would be used that way.

In reality though, ammonia is almost always produced where it is cheapest, ie where there is ready access to very cheap fossil fuels, the Gulf etc.

Similarly the production of green ammonia will be concentrated in the areas with the very cheapest solar and wind resources, then shipped about, especially by for instance the Gulf states, who have to replace revenue from fossil fuels if carbon emissions are to be phased out.

But usage of ammonia as a means of transporting hydrogen opens up way more avenues than simply replacing fertiliser, and can be done where the inputs of renewables are more costly,

So where that seems like the most effective way of moving the hydrogen about, then it surely both makes sense to do so for immediate purposes, but also because it develops the chain for far greater volume as renewable production becomes more abundant.

You don't go from full stop to flat out instantly, and putting some effort and resources into early stage development is far more sensible than absolutist notions of not putting any work or money into what must at the moment remain small initiatives.


@ron ingman
The point is the 2nd law thermo, every conversion stage has an energy loss. Creating hydrogen is an energy loser to begin with, everything after that is more losses.
Ammonia is already being adopted as a fuel for large ship.

Bernard Harper

I used to work with 10% ammonia solutions and it was nasty even at that dilution. If there was any kind of spillage we had to evacuate the building. I have never understood why it is considered to be safe enough for use as a fuel. Anyone who has been exposed to its vapour will never forget it's painful effects on their eyes or its shocking impact on their breathing system.



Everything is lossy, the question is how much, and whether the losses are copable with economically and environmentally.

Stuff can't sensibly be ruled out simply because it is lossy to some extent.

No one at all is going to convert energy from one form to another for the sake of it, only when the benefits outweigh the costs.

It is way, way easier to ship ammonia than liquid hydrogen, and some of the pathways have relatively low energy loss.



I don't much like ammonia either, and personally would prefer using other chemicals where practicable, including for instance liquid organic hydrogen carriers.

Dunno about in bulk transport shipping though, where ammonia is tough to beat.

Gotta be very careful about handling it though, which is far more practical in high volume industrial settings.

Aside from zero CO2 in converting it to hydrogen, the other big attraction about ammonia is that we are already set up to handle it in huge volume, so however unpleasant and dangerous it is, we already have the protocols and equipment.

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