The movement toward small-scale ammonia is accelerating for two reasons. First, small ammonia plants are flexible. And, second, small ammonia plants are flexible.
They are feedstock-flexible, meaning that they can use the small quantities of low-value or stranded resources that are widely available at a local scale. This includes flared natural gas, landfill gas, or wind power.
And they are market-flexible, meaning that they can serve various local needs, selling products like fertilizer, energy storage, or fuel; or services like resource independence, price stability, or supply chain robustness.
While the scale of these plants is small, the impact of this technology is big. As industry-insider publication Nitrogen+Syngas explained in its last issue, "as ammonia production moves toward more sustainable and renewable feedstocks the ammonia market is facing a potentially radical change."
This week, the NH3 Fuel Association published the full technical schedule for the NH3 Energy+ Topical Conference, which will be hosted within the AIChE Annual Meeting, on October 31, 2018, in Pittsburgh, PA.
Featuring more than 50 oral presentations, this year's event will be our busiest yet. Speakers and co-authors from 16 countries, and 18 states across the USA, will present research and development from 68 separate companies and research institutions.
Registration for the AIChE Annual Meeting is now open, with reduced rates until September 17. Full details are at the NH3 Fuel Association website.
McKinsey & Company, the global consulting firm, recently published a report that analyzes the "Decarbonization of industrial sectors," with a focus on the four heaviest emitters: cement, steel, ammonia, and ethylene production.
"We conclude that decarbonizing industry is technically possible ... We also identify the drivers of costs associated with decarbonization and the impact it will have on the broader energy system." Of course, "technical and economical hurdles arise," but the report provides valuable analysis of the economic levers that will be required.
In June, ThyssenKrupp announced the launch of its technology for "advanced water electrolysis," which produces carbon-free hydrogen from renewable electricity and water. This "technology enables economical industrial-scale hydrogen plants for energy storage and the production of green chemicals."
Two weeks later, in early July, ThyssenKrupp announced that it was moving forward with a demonstration plant in Port Lincoln, South Australia, which had been proposed earlier this year. This will be "one of the first ever commercial plants to produce CO2-free 'green' ammonia from intermittent renewable resources."
The German conglomerate is one of the four major ammonia technology licensors, so its actions in the sustainable ammonia space are globally significant.
The International Chamber of Shipping has published a short but powerful report to "endorse" the International Maritime Organization's Initial Strategy on Reduction of GHG Emissions from Ships, adopted in April 2018. The ICS report calls the IMO's Initial GHG Strategy "a historic agreement which the global industry, as represented by ICS, fully supports," and discusses four fuel technologies that could deliver the IMO's targets: batteries, hydrogen, ammonia, and nuclear.
The ICS report also demonstrates four realities, which apply, perhaps uniquely, to the maritime sector. First, corporations are driving change, in advance of government legislation. Second, these corporations are looking for more than incremental reductions in emissions and instead targeting total sectoral decarbonization with the ambition "to achieve zero CO2 emissions as soon as the development of new fuels and propulsion systems will allow." Third, they realize that LNG and other low-carbon fuels cannot meet these targets: "the ultimate goal of zero emissions can only be delivered with genuine zero CO2 fuels that are both environmentally sustainable and economically viable." Fourth, they recognize that, because ships are long-lived assets, the need to invest in zero CO2 fuel technologies is urgent and immediate.
GenCell Energy, the Israeli fuel cell manufacturer, has made two major announcements in the last month. In June, it unveiled its ammonia-fueled alkaline fuel cell system. In July, it announced its first commercial customer.
Its A5 Off-Grid Power Solution is a "nano power plant that operates fully independent of the grid." The first phase of product trials, using ammonia as a fuel to provide uninterruptible power to cell phone masts, will begin in Kenya by the end of this year, and "product roll-out" is expected in the second half of 2019.
On June 28, Norwegian hydrogen company Nel ASA issued a press release announcing that the company will supply “448 electrolyzers and associated fueling equipment to Nikola Motor Company as part of Nikola’s development of a hydrogen station infrastructure in the U.S. for truck and passenger vehicles.” The Nikola-Nel arrangement is a globally significant step in the process of implementing a full-scale hydrogen energy economy. And although its approach for supplying green energy to hydrogen fueling stations does not involve ammonia, it seems likely it will ultimately help make the case for ammonia as an economically advantaged option.
Two new pilot projects for producing "green ammonia" from renewable electricity are now up and running and successfully producing ammonia.
In April 2018, the Ammonia Manufacturing Pilot Plant for Renewable Energy started up at the Fukushima Renewable Energy Institute - AIST (FREA) in Japan. Earlier this week, Siemens launched operations at its Green Ammonia Demonstrator, at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory outside Oxford in the UK.
The commercial product coming out of these plants is not ammonia, however, it is knowledge.
While both the FREA and Siemens plants are of similar scale, with respective ammonia capacities of 20 and 30 kg per day, they have very different objectives. At FREA, the pilot project supports catalyst development with the goal of enabling efficient low-pressure, low-temperature ammonia synthesis. At Siemens, the pilot will provide insights into the business case for ammonia as a market-flexible energy storage vector.
On May 28 Sawafuji Electric Company issued a press release detailing advances made over the last year on the ammonia-to-hydrogen conversion technology it has been jointly developing with Gifu University. The main area of progress is the rate of hydrogen generation, but the key takeaway from the announcement is that Sawafuji has set a schedule that culminates in product commercialization in 2020.
Over the last few years, world-scale ammonia plants have been built, restarted, and relocated across the US. The last of these mega-projects began operations at Freeport in Texas last month. No more new ammonia plants are currently under construction in the US, and the received industry wisdom is that no more will begin construction.
However, project developers and ammonia start-ups did not get this memo. With low natural gas prices persisting, they have not stopped announcing plans to build new plants. The difference is that the next tranche of new ammonia plants breaking ground will not be world-scale but regional-scale, with production capacities of perhaps only one tenth the industry standard. Despite using fossil feedstocks, these plants will set new efficiency and emissions standards for small-scale ammonia plants, and demonstrate novel business models that will profoundly alter the future industry landscape for sustainable ammonia technologies.