When most people think of nitrous oxide (N2O), they think of a trip to the dentist. However, N2O is the third-most emitted greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide and methane, and it causes severe damage to the ozone layer. Although little attention has been paid to the gas’s impact, a new article in Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society, explores how the chemical industry is working to abate its emissions.
Approximately two-thirds of N2O emissions arise from agricultural practices, when manure and fertilizer break down and emit the gas. Little has been done to mitigate this, with lobbyists and policymakers citing the difficulty of capturing agricultural emissions. In contrast, the second largest source of N2O is the chemical industry, where experts say emissions can be cut dramatically and inexpensively. Companies producing the raw materials for nylon began working to abate N2O emissions decades ago, but the current demand for global climate action has put pressure on other chemical firms to do the same.
In order to curb N2O emissions, chemical plants have several efficient and cost-effective technologies at their disposal. One process uses catalysts to break down the gas into benign nitrogen and oxygen, reducing emissions up to 90%. A more expensive method involves installing a thermal reduction unit at the end of a plant’s exhaust pipes, destroying up to 99% of N2O by incinerating it. In addition, some companies are working to capture N2O emissions for use in other applications such as manufacturing flat screen displays. Although firms in the nylon industry have made progress, the manufacturing of nitric acid — a primary ingredient in fertilizer –remains the primary creator of N2O in the chemical sector. This has spurred climate action groups and governments to advocate for increased regulations and emissions taxes that would force the hand of manufacturers to produce chemicals in a more climate-friendly way.
The article, “Nitrous oxide packs a dangerous climate punch, but much goes unabated,” is freely available here.
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