In Le Havre, the production of ammonia for fertilizers is restarted after a three-week standstill

Tank wagons loaded with cooled liquid ammonia pull along the tracks along the Seine: the factory of the fertilizer company Yara has just started up again in Le Havre. 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 price of gas that we knew in the previous months,” Aurélien Rault, manager of decommissioning and maintenance at the site, which belongs to Norwegian group Yara, the first mineral fertilizer manufacturer in the world, tells AFP .

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, it simply becomes no longer profitable to produce.

At the end of 2021, with the first increase in the price of natural gas in Europe, “40% of European fertilizer capacities were shut down in December”, according to Luc Benoit-Cattin, President of the France Chimie association, which brings together the main industrialists in the sector.

The situation in 2022 is exacerbated by the Ukraine conflict and the gas price has thus reached “between 100 and 150 euros per MGW depending on the day”, 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 a year, a hard blow to French farmers, who mainly use nitrogen fertilizers based on ammonia.

While he assures that he has “never experienced” such a situation, Mr. Rault would like to reassure today: Prices have “dropped to an extent that is still very high in the market but remains manageable and allows us to see the market.” continue to dine,” 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, at the entrance to the Normandy site, the pipeline’s mouth again spews 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 Societal 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 low-carbon fertilizers,” assures Delphine Guey. And “we plan to produce 30% by 2030.”

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