Gas prices: In Le Havre, the production of ammonia for fertilizers is restarting after a three-week standstill

Gonfreville-l’Orcher (France) (AFP) – Tank wagons loaded with cooled liquid ammonia pull on the rails along the Seine: in Le Havre, the factory of the fertilizer company Yara has just started up again. Soaring gas prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced the country to halt production for three weeks.

“We’re talking about three, four, five times the gas price that we knew in the previous months”explains AFP Aurélien Rault, responsible for the decommissioning and maintenance of the site, which belongs to the Norwegian group Yara, the first manufacturer of mineral fertilizers in the world.

For this group, as for all nitrogen fertilizer producers, the price of gas is crucial: it alone accounts for almost 90% of their production costs. Above a certain price level, production is simply no longer worthwhile.

At the end of 2021, with the first increase in the price of natural gas in Europe, “40% of Europe’s fertilizer capacity shut down in December”says Luc Benoit-Cattin, President of the France Chimie association, which brings together the main manufacturers in the sector.

The situation in 2022 will be aggravated by the Ukraine conflict, and the gas price has thus reached “depending on the day between 100 and 150 euros per MGW”while in previous years it averaged around 45 euros, adds Mr. Benoit-Cattin.

For its part, Yara decided on March 9 to announce the closure of two sites in Europe, that of Le Havre and its Italian ammonia plant in Ferrara. For the French plant alone, the disruption will result in a drop in ammonia production of 22,000 tons over the year, a hard blow to French farmers, who mainly use nitrogen fertilizers based on ammonia.

Certainly not available “never known” In such a situation, Mr. Rault would like to reassure you today: Prices have fallen “in proportions that remain very high in the market but manageable and allow us to continue to supply the market”he said.

In this chemical site classified by Seveso, the forced shutdown of the production lines made it possible to carry out maintenance work or to check data on the condition of the equipment. Each of the 147 employees continued to work.

But it took a total of six days before the entire plant was started up again and the first ton of urea, which was obtained from ammonia, could be produced. Solid granulated urea, of which the Le Havre plant produces 330,000 tonnes per year, is mainly used as a feed additive for livestock.

fertilizer from water?

Today, the mouth of the pipeline at the entrance to the Normandy site spews more natural gas – methane with the chemical formula CH4 – towards the plants, where the gas molecules are ‘cracked’ with water vapor (whose chemical acronym is H2O). , before being “synthesized” (mixed) with nitrogen (N) from the air to produce ammonia (NH3), which is liquefied at -33 degrees to transport it.

Yara is working on solutions to completely eliminate the mainly imported gas CH4, which is also a source of greenhouse gas emissions.

During the cracking process to isolate the hydrogen from methane, the carbon (C) molecules combine with those of the oxygen in the water (O2) to produce carbon dioxide (CO2), part of which is reused to produce urea, the other part is released The atmosphere.

“Tomorrow we will be able to extract hydrogen from water by adding nitrogen from the air. This allows us to produce +green ammonia+ from renewable energies that no longer emit greenhouse gases.”explains Delphine Guey, director of social engagement at Yara France.

The fertilizer manufacturer relies heavily on the process of electrolysis of water using green energies (hydro in Norway, solar in Australia, wind in the Netherlands) to fuel itself with hydrogen.

“In our production facilities in France, we will be able to produce zero-carbon fertilizers”, assures Delphine Guey. and “By 2030 we want to produce 30%.”

© AFP

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