By adding ammonia to a metal catalyst containing the element ruthenium, the chemistry researchers found that the reaction spontaneously produced nitrogen while releasing energy. A release from the university shows the process can be used to produce electricity, and the metal components can be “recycled through exposure to oxygen and used repeatedly.”

Ammonia has been burned for fuel in the past, including for automobiles during World War II. But burning ammonia releases nitrogen oxide gases that are toxic. The release shows the newly discovered reaction “avoids those toxic byproducts.”

John Berry, the Lester McNall Professor of Chemistry at UW-Madison, says getting energy from an ammonia-to-nitrogen reaction under these conditions “is a pretty big deal.”

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