An international research team co-led by Texas Engineer Guihua Yu won the Royal Society of Chemistry’s (RSC) prestigious Materials Chemistry Horizon Prize, an award celebrating groundbreaking developments which push the boundaries of science. 

The researchers were honored for their discovery of a new, greener method of producing urea — a key compound found in fertilizer. For decades, scientists and engineers have sought to make the production of urea, which makes up about 2% of global energy use and emissions today, more energy efficient as demand for fertilizer grows with increased population.

Making urea today involves a two-step thermal process that requires high levels of heat and pressure under controlled harsh environments. But this new process requires just one step and relies on a concept called electrocatalysis that uses electricity — and potentially sunlight — to trigger chemical reactions in a solution at room temperature in ambient conditions.

“This work enables a new concept of a sustainable urea production method using nitrate and carbon dioxide, via the sustainable electricity to help address environmental concerns," said Yu, a professor of materials science in the Cockrell School of Engineering's Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering and Texas Materials Institute. "This RSC Horizon Prize in Materials Chemistry is awarded to our international team of scientists with very complementary expertise, which also reflects the very importance and the clear strength of global scientific collaboration.”

The team includes researchers from The University of Texas at Austin, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the University of Science and Technology in China. the Electrocatalytic Urea Synthesis Team – which is composed of specialists in materials chemistry, electrochemistry, theoretical modelling, and analytical chemistry – join a prestigious list of past winners in the RSC’s prize portfolio, 60 of whom have gone on to win Nobel Prizes for their work, including 2022 laureate Carolyn Bertozzi and 2019 laureate, John B Goodenough.