The viability of producing ammonia using renewable energy was one of the recurring themes of the recent Power to Ammonia conference in Rotterdam. Specifically, what cost reductions or market mechanisms would be necessary so that renewable ammonia - produced using electrolytic hydrogen in a Haber-Bosch plant - would be competitive with normal, "brown" ammonia, made from fossil fuels.
A number of major industry participants addressed this theme at the conference, including Yara and OCI Nitrogen, but it was the closing speech, from the International Energy Agency (IEA), that provided the key data to demonstrate that, because costs have already come down so far, renewable ammonia is cost-competitive in certain regions today.
The ammonia-fueled gas turbine (A-GT) seems destined to become one of the key technologies in the sustainable energy economy of the future. Siemens AG, for one, features the A-GT in its vision for “Green Ammonia for Energy Storage and Beyond” and the demonstration system that the company is building at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the U.K. Last month Ian Wilkinson, Siemens’ Programme Manager for the demonstration project, spoke about the project’s progress at the 1st European Power to Ammonia® Conference in Rotterdam in The Netherlands. Although he devoted a slide to the A-GT, the detailed perspective came from another presentation at the conference. This one was delivered by Dr. Agustin Valera-Medina, a Senior Lecturer at Cardiff University, one of Siemens’ main green ammonia collaborators.
Recent “On the Ground in Japan” posts have considered the path forward for Japan’s “Hydrogen Society.” Two weeks ago, a post entitled “FCV Uptake and Hydrogen Fueling Stations,” pointed to a lack of marketplace momentum for the products that are supposed to drive the hydrogen society forward in the near term. The uptake of fuel-cell vehicles is off to a very slow start and the construction of hydrogen fueling stations is “not proceeding.”
The same day the post appeared, the Japanese market research firm Fuji Keizai announced the release of a report projecting robust growth for the country’s hydrogen economy. As reported by the on-line news service Smart Japan, the market for selected hydrogen-related goods will start to hit its stride with the arrival of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. At that time, Fuji Keizai projects the market will have a value of approximately ¥700 billion ($6.4 billion). By 2030, the report says, the market will have a value of ¥5,903 billion ($54 billion). This is good news for hydrogen proponents but its import for ammonia energy is not clear.
The maritime industry is beginning to show significant interest in using ammonia as a "bunker fuel," a sustainable alternative to the highly polluting heavy fuel oil (HFO) currently used in ships across the world.
In recent months, a firm of naval architects and a new maritime think tank have both been evaluating ammonia as a fuel. This includes a road map for future research, and collaborations for a demonstration project that will allow them to design and build a freight ship "Powered by NH3."
One of the many encouraging announcements at the recent Power-to-Ammonia conference in Rotterdam was the news that the Korea Institute of Energy Research (KIER) has extended funding for its electrochemical ammonia synthesis research program by another three years, pushing the project forward through 2019.
KIER's research target for 2019 is significant: to demonstrate an ammonia production rate of 1x10-7 mol/s·cm2.
If the KIER team can hit this target, not only would it be ten thousand times better than their 2012 results but, according to the numbers I'll provide below, it would be the closest an electrochemical ammonia synthesis technology has come to being commercially competitive.
“Carbon-free ammonia needs to be a significant contributor to the H2@Scale initiative.” This was one of the “key takeaways” offered by Steve Szymanski, Director of Business Development at the hydrogen generator company Proton On-Site, during his presentation at the H2@Scale Workshop that was held on May 23-24 at the University of Houston in the U.S. By the time Szymanski left the podium, ammonia energy had moved a good distance from the periphery of the H2@Scale conceptual map toward its center.
Module four of the ten-module research and development agenda for Japan’s Cross-Ministerial Strategic Innovation Promotion Program -- Energy Carriers is entitled “Basic Technology for Hydrogen Station Utilizing Ammonia.” The rationale for including this technology is that “high purity H2 supply system with low cost hydrogen transportation is a key issue to spread fuel cell vehicles (FCVs).”
A story published last week in the Tokyo Shimbun says that to date FCVs have not spread very far. Among the factors seen as constraints is the cost of hydrogen fueling stations (HFS). The Tokyo Shimbun story states that “according to industry officials, each station that supplies hydrogen to fuel cell vehicles runs about ¥400 million ($3.6 million) in construction costs. In order to achieve profitability, about 1,000 fuel cell vehicles are required as customers per location. Construction is not proceeding.”
So far, the players focused on FCVs do not seem to be looking to ammonia as an expedient that will help reduce the cost of HFS and thereby encourage their construction and by extension the uptake of FCVs. This appears to be a missed opportunity whose benefits may become too compelling to ignore.
The Institute for Sustainable Process Technology (ISPT) recently published a detailed analysis of three business cases for producing renewable ammonia from electricity: Power to Ammonia. The feasibility study concludes that, in the near term, ammonia production using clean electricity will likely rely on a combination of two old-established, proven technologies: electrolysis and Haber-Bosch (E-HB). To reach this conclusion, however, the study also assessed a range of alternative technologies, which I summarize in this article.
The Power-to-Ammonia feasibility study includes an assessment of the costs and benefits of producing ammonia from renewable energy at OCI Nitrogen's existing production site in Geleen.
Of all the companies who joined forces in the Power-to-Ammonia project, OCI is the only ammonia producer. Its business case for making carbon-free ammonia is especially interesting therefore: not just because of the company's deep understanding of the ammonia market and available technologies, but also because it faces corporate exposure to the financial, operational, and social risks of relying upon a fossil-fueled technology in a carbon constrained future.
Last week Kaden Watch, a Japanese Web site for appliance news, reported that Tokyo Gas had delivered its 80,000th Ene Farm residential fuel cell system. This small news item, delivered by a niche media outlet, lifts a critical corner of the decidedly “big-tent” story of Japan’s strategy to develop a hydrogen-based energy economy. How the Ene Farm topic develops is likely to be a major factor in Japan’s ability to sustain its hydrogen vision -- and possibly a determinant of the role ammonia could play within it.