The University of Iceland has in recent years focused on supporting staff and students from all schools in innovation and utilisation of research findings. The university is keen to create new social and economic opportunities and to increase its impact on the community at large. The university currently owns shares in around 20 start-ups, founded by staff and student – all of them working on addressing challenges faced by Icelandic society and often humanity as a whole.
One of these is the company Atmonia. Atmonia is developing a revolutionary technology that will facilitate environmentally friendly production of fertilizer and increase agriculture’s access worldwide to fertilizer that will reduce their carbon footprint. The company is furthermore a founding partner a green energy park in Reyðarfjörður in east-Iceland, where Atmonia’s technology will be used for sustainable production of fertilizer for the domestic market.
The idea behind Atmonia is based on Egill Skúlason’s research. Egill is professor of chemical engineering at the university, and in collaboration with international and domestic partners he has done extensive research on chemical catalysts. “The company has worked tirelessly on the development of a new and revolutionary catalyst that will enable us to produce ammonium in an environmentally friendly manner at a competitive price. This is still our main goal, and will remain so until the catalyst is fully developed, “ says Guðbjörg Rist, CEO of Atmonia, but hitherto ammonium has been manufactured using energy intensive and polluting processes.
“Alongside this work we have started developing a system that produces green nitrate fertilizer from ammonium, increasing the value of the ammonium production by being added to the ammonium system. Furthermore, we have increased the business development of the company through hiring staff. We have various projects in the planning stages all around the world, where our partners are interested in setting up factories based on Atmonia’s technology, with capacities of up to 30,000 tonnes of ammonium annually,” Guðbjörg adds.
Research requires patience, but can yield a lot
Atmonia was founded in 2016 and was the winner of the innovation competition the Golden Egg in 2017. Since then the company has grown steadily, through various grants and investments. The facilities at Tæknisetur were a game changer for the company’s success where access to outstanding facilities and equipment is guaranteed. The company’s scientists have been able to carry on developing the idea, and more people have been hired, many of them experience innovators. As is often the case with ideas that come out of academic research, the work requires patience – it can take years to reap the benefits of the work.
“The science we work on in Atmonia can be described as deep technology, requiring extensive investment before anything marketable emerges. Therefore, there is a substantial risk in investing in a company involved in such research, while the yield is of course more bountiful when things work out. The management of Atmonia has had to work hard to find capital for the projects, with good success so far – both through grants from various funds and professional investors. The science the company works on are complex in operation and it has been a challenging journey, but by procuring funding we have kept going and the final solution is always closer. Grants from the Icelandic Research Fund and the Technology Development Fund have ensured that Atmonia has kept going through the last few years,” says Dr Hákon Örn Birgisson, Atmonia’s marketing director, who joined the company two years ago.
As stated above the university is one of the company’s shareholders. Egill Skúlason, one of the innovators and founders is one of its largest shareholders. “Our collaboration with the university has been excellent, we work closely with Egill’s research group and we have provided his students with facilities to work on research. We also have had the opportunity to work with the Nano Research Centre and have used their facilities,” says Guðbjörg when asked about their collaboration with the university.
Atmonia´s board of directors. Above CEO Guðbjörg Rist and CBO Hákon Örn Birgisson. Below are CTO and Co-Founder Arnar Sveinbjörnsson and CRO and Co-Founder Helga Dögg Flosadóttir.
Developing an energy park in Reyðarfjörður
A revolutionary idea like the one that Atmonia is working on has naturally sparked a lot of interest and created new opportunities. Recently the company’s representatives signed a statement on their intention to participate in developing a green energy park in Reyðarfjörður in cooperation with Fjarðarbyggð municipality, Landsvirkjun and Copenhage Infrastructure Partners (CIP). The goal of the cooperation is to evaluate how the production of green electric fuel can facilitate energy exchange in the fishing industry, marine and land transport. “The projects of CIP and Landsvirkjun in Reyðarfjörður is very interesting and an important step towards reducing carbon footprints, both in Iceland and in countries exchanging products with a large carbon footprint for green products manufactured in the energy park. The purpose of Atmonia is to lower the carbon footprint wherever possible, and thus the operation of the energy park is a perfect fit for the vision and goal of Atmonia. It was an easy decision to decide to accept the offer to participate,” says Hákon about the project.
The future is therefore bright for Atmonia and the goals for the next few years are clear. “The company’s plans assume that the catalyst will be ready for upscaling within two years. The next step will be the optimisation of ammonium production using the equipment and its upscaling. We assume that the first full size units, producing ammonium, will be on the market within four years and that they will become part of the development of the factories already being designed in Europe and North-America. Alongside this the company, its operations, and its staff grow steadily,” says Guðbjörg – optimistic about the future.