Researcher joins Breakthrough Energy Fellows

Published Oct 19, 2021

Dr Franck Natali, Associate Professor at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington and Wellington UniVentures’ Innovator-in-Residence, has been accepted on to the inaugural Breakthrough Energy Fellows Program to develop his work into revolutionising the way ammonia is produced. Wellington UniVentures recognised that Dr Natali’s research could have global impact to reduce carbon emissions and nominated him for the program.

Breakthrough Energy Fellows is the latest program announced by Breakthrough Energy, an organisation founded by Bill Gates, that is dedicated to supporting the development and adoption of new clean technologies that can help the world achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. The program will provide innovators from across the globe with funding, mentorship, education, and access to the Breakthrough Energy network. Through this, the program aims to fill a critical gap in the innovation ecosystem by providing essential resources to traditionally under-resourced innovators in the nascent stages of commercialising clean technologies.

“Climate innovators are critical players in the fight to solve the climate crisis. These brilliant minds are working every day to introduce novel technologies and disruptive approaches to a variety of industries, which will have the power to transform and reimagine our sustainable future,” said Ashley Grosh, Vice President, Breakthrough Energy Fellows. “To succeed, these leaders need a uniquely tailored set of resources, and that’s why we created the Breakthrough Energy Fellows Program. We are incredibly excited to launch this inaugural cohort and continue to find and support the world’s brightest innovators taking on our most pressing technological challenges.”

The 2021 cohort consists of innovators working in steel, cement, hydrogen, fertilizer, and electrofuels. Dr Natali and his work with Liquium to decarbonise ammonia was selected through an international competitive application process and demonstrated how the technology has the ability to reduce 500 million tons of carbon dioxide per year at scale. Dr Natali is the only New Zealander on the cohort this year.

Ammonia production is one of the single largest chemical industrial processes on earth; globally, ammonia-based fertilisers are responsible for 50% of the world’s food production. Beyond its use as a fertiliser, ammonia is a key component in the manufacture of many everyday products. But the way ammonia is currently produced—using the Haber-Bosch process, which has remained unchanged since the early 1900s—is incredibly energy-intensive, producing 2-3% of global carbon emissions.

“Ammonia doesn’t contain any carbon as part of its chemical makeup; however, the hydrogen feedstock used in the production process is typically sourced from natural gas or coal. Producing ammonia using green hydrogen and under the exceedingly mild conditions we discovered has the potential to reduce emissions significantly,” explained Dr Natali.

Wellington UniVentures put Dr Natali forward for the Breakthrough Energy Fellows, understanding how his research could have real global impact, enabling the green export of hydrogen and a new clean ammonia liquid fuel for heavy industry.

Dr Natali, who is also a Principal Investigator with the MacDiarmid Institute, says: “It’s fantastic to see that our research is being recognised by big players. We cannot reach climate goals without breakthroughs in this sector and this programme not only provides early investment but also the support needed to accelerate and scale the technology. We have a solution that works and I’m incredibly excited to be on this journey to help reach net zero emissions by 2050.