The list of investment drivers for building new ammonia plants in the US over the last few years was short, beginning and ending with cheap natural gas. Markets change, however, and the investment drivers for the next generation of new ammonia plants might include low cost electrolyzers, low cost renewable power, carbon taxes, and global demand for ammonia as a carbon-free energy vector.
For this to make sense, however, ammonia needs to be produced without fossil fuel inputs. This is perfectly possible using Haber-Bosch technology with electrolyzers, but today's wind and solar power plants exist on a smaller scale than could support a standard (very big) Haber-Bosch plant. So, to produce renewable ammonia, small-scale ammonia production is essential.
This time series chart shows the capital intensity of today’s ammonia plants. Together, the data illustrate competitive advantages of alternative investment strategies, and demonstrate a shift away from the prior trend toward (and received wisdom of) monolithic mega-plants that rely on a natural gas feedstock.
One of Ammonia Energy’s “top ten” stories of 2017 described Australia’s early steps toward export of renewable hydrogen in the form of green ammonia. The story said that “Agencies such as the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) made it clear during the year that the country intends to build on [its historical] position” as a supplier of fossil energy to countries such as Japan.
ARENA took a tangible step in this direction on December 20, 2017 with the release of a Request for Proposal for a AUD$20 million (USD$16 million) renewable hydrogen R&D funding program. Included in the scope, per ARENA’s 2017 Investment Plan, could be “demonstration of renewable production methods for transportable energy storage options (such as hydrogen or ammonia).”
The Japanese government has approved an updated hydrogen strategy which appears to give ammonia the inside track in the race against liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid organic hydride (LOH) energy carrier systems. The announcement was made on December 26, 2017, by the Agency of Natural Resources and Energy (ANRE), the lead agency on energy policy within the Ministry of Energy, Trade, and Industry (METI).
Perhaps the most important indicator of ammonia’s positioning as the lead energy carrier can be seen in the development timelines that are assigned to each energy carrier. The Strategy calls for “CO2-free ammonia” to come into use “by the mid-2020s.”
As part of the sustainable agenda of the UK, the government, research institutions and various enterprises have looked for options to reduce the carbon footprint of the country while ensuring energy independence for several years. As a response, one of the alternatives has been to introduce the use of marine energy via the implementation of a barrage in the Severn Estuary or the development and implementation of Tidal Lagoons located around the Welsh coast. From these alternatives, the tidal lagoon concept seems to be most feasible.
Hybrid tidal and wind energy systems will produce vast amounts of energy during off-peak hours that will require the use of energy storage technologies - the size of each proposed tidal lagoon ranges close to ~1.5 GW. Currently, companies involved in the development of these complexes are thinking of batteries, pumped hydro, and ammonia as the potential candidates to provide storage for these vast amounts of energy.
Last month, a heavyweight consortium of local and global companies announced plans to collaborate on a project to design, build, operate, and evaluate a demonstration plant to produce "green ammonia" from water, air, and renewable energy in The Netherlands.
This is one practical outcome of last year's Power-to-Ammonia study, which examined the economic and technical feasibility of using tidal power off the island of Goeree-Overflakkee in Zuid-Holland to power a 25 MWe electrolyzer unit, and feed renewable hydrogen to a 20,000 ton per year green ammonia plant.
This new demonstration plant phase of the project will still be led by the original developer, Dutch mini-ammonia plant developer Proton Ventures. However, its partners in the venture now include Yara and Siemens, as well as speciality fertilizer producer Van Iperen, and local sustainable agricultural producer, the Van Peperstraten Groep.
This series of articles on the future of ammonia synthesis began with a report on the NH3 Energy+ conference presentation by Grigorii Soloveichik, Program Director at the US Department of Energy's ARPA-E, who categorized the technologies as being either improvements on Haber-Bosch or electrochemical (with exceptions).
ARPA-E invests in "transformational, high-risk, early-stage research," and recently began funding ammonia synthesis technologies, not to make renewable fertilizer but to produce "energy-dense zero-carbon liquid fuel." This article will introduce the six electrochemical technologies currently in development with funding from ARPA-E.
Last week, in Part 1 of this series on electrochemical ammonia synthesis technologies, I quoted a recent article by researchers at MIT that identified avenues for future research and development. One option was a biomimicry approach, learning from "enzymatic catalysts, such as nitrogenases," which can "either be incorporated into or provide inspiration for the design of electrocatalytic processes."
The nitrogenase enzyme, nature's ammonia synthesis technology, was developed in an iterative innovation process, otherwise known as evolution, that took hundreds of millions of years to reach this level of efficiency. According to one group of electrochemists, who presented their results at the recent NH3 Energy+ conference, nitrogenase produces ammonia in nature with an enviable 66% process efficiency - so it's no surprise that they are basing their industrial technology on it.
Last month's NH3 Energy+ conference featured presentations on a great range of novel ammonia synthesis technologies, including improvements to Haber-Bosch, and plasmas, membranes, and redox cycles. But, in a mark of a conference approaching maturity, members of the audience had at least as much to contribute as the presenters.
This was the case for electrochemical synthesis technologies: while the presentations included updates from an influential industry-academia-government collaboration, led by Nel Hydrogen's US subsidiary, the audience members represented, among others, the new electrochemical ammonia synthesis research lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and a team from Monash University in Australia. The very next week, Monash published its latest results, reporting an electrochemical process that synthesized ammonia with 60% faradaic efficiency, an unprecedented rate of current conversion at ambient pressure and temperature.
On December 8, the Nikkei Sangyo Shimbun ran a story about the future of coal-fired electricity generation in Japan. The story touched on topics ranging from the plumbing in a Chugoku Electric generating station to the Trump administration’s idiosyncratic approach to global geopolitics. And it contained this sentence: “Ammonia can become a ‘savior’ of coal-fired power.”
This week, Lloyd's Register published the most significant comparative assessment so far of ammonia's potential as a zero-emission maritime fuel.
The new report compares ammonia, used in either internal combustion engines (ICE) or fuel cells, to other low-carbon technologies, including hydrogen, batteries, and biofuels, estimating costs for 2030. It concludes that, of all the sustainable, available options, ammonia "appears the most competitive."