On July 25, the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) announced that a collection of companies and research institutions had come together to form a Green Ammonia Consortium. The 22-member group will take over responsibility for the ammonia aspect of the Cross-Ministerial Strategic Innovation Program (SIP) Energy Carriers agenda when the SIP is discontinued at the end of fiscal 2018. A JST press release states that the Consortium intends to develop a strategy for “forming [an] ammonia value chain,” promote demonstration projects that can further commercialization, and enable “Japanese industry to lead the world market.”
Chiyoda Corporation, the multinational chemical engineering firm that is arguably the leading proponent of the methyl cyclohexane (MCH) method of hydrogen transport, will start work this month on a project to demonstrate MCH technology in a real-world context. As reported in a July 27 company press release, the project will involve the transportation of hydrogen from Brunei to Japan in what the company states is "the world's first global hydrogen supply chain demonstration project" -- an assertion that many ammonia energy proponents will no doubt find preposterous.
Earlier this month the Eguchi Laboratory at Kyoto University announced advances in ammonia-fueled solid oxide fuel cell technology. The lab was able to produce a functioning fuel cell with a power output of one kilowatt. The device attained “direct current power generation efficiency” in excess of 50% and reached 1,000 hours of continuous operation.
The American Chemical Society (ACS) has published the program for its 2017 National Meeting, which takes place next month in Washington DC and includes a session dedicated to the "Ammonia Economy."
The first day of the week-long meeting, Sunday August 20th, will feature a full morning of technical papers from the US, UK, and Japan, covering ammonia energy topics across three general areas: producing hydrogen from ammonia, developing new catalysts for ammonia synthesis and oxidation, and storing ammonia in solid chemical form.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On April 27 the on-line journal Science Advances published “Carbon-free H2 production from ammonia triggered at room temperature with an acidic RuO2/γ-Al2O3 catalyst.” The lead author, Katsutoshi Nagaoka, and his six co-authors are associated with the Department of Applied Chemistry at Oita University in Japan. The innovation featured in the paper could prove to be an important enabler of ammonia fuel in automotive applications.
While Japan’s Cross-Ministerial Strategic Innovation Promotion Program (SIP) continues to evaluate liquid hydrogen (LH2), methylcyclohexane (MCH), and ammonia as hydrogen energy carriers, Japanese press reports show that the backers of liquid hydrogen and MCH are building an early lead over ammonia with hydrogen fueling stations based on their favored commodities.