The newest ammonia plant on the planet has opened in Freeport, Texas.
A joint venture between Yara and BASF, this world-scale ammonia plant uses no fossil fuel feedstock. Instead, it will produce 750,000 metric tons of ammonia per year using hydrogen and nitrogen delivered directly by pipeline. The plant's hydrogen contract is structured so that the primary supply is byproduct hydrogen, rather than hydrogen produced from fossil fuels, and therefore the Freeport plant can claim that its ammonia has a significantly reduced carbon footprint.
This new ammonia plant demonstrates three truths. First, low-carbon merchant ammonia is available for purchase in industrial quantities today: this is not just technically feasible but also economically competitive. Second, carbon intensity is measured in shades of grey, not black and white. Ammonia is not necessarily carbon-free or carbon-full, but it has a carbon intensity that can quantified and, in a carbon-constrained economy, less carbon content equates to higher premium pricing. Third, the ammonia industry must improve its carbon footprinting before it can hope to be rewarded for producing green ammonia.
Approximately 40% of the world’s energy budget is consumed in the generation of electricity. This is by far the largest use of primary energy across major energy-consuming sectors (transportation, industry, etc.). What role ammonia will play in the electricity sector is therefore a question of considerable importance for the sustainable energy system of the future. One concept currently on the table is power-to-ammonia as a means of electricity storage, whereby electricity is used to produce hydrogen and the hydrogen is reacted with nitrogen to produce ammonia. The other, mirror-image, concept is to use ammonia, or hydrogen derived from ammonia, as a fuel that can be turned into electricity.
This “back-end” use case is the focus of recent announcements from Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS). According to an April 5 story in the Nikkei Sangyo, MHPS plans to put a “hydrogen-dedicated gas turbine . . . into practical use by 2030.” The company also stated that it has “started developing technology to extract hydrogen from ammonia,” citing ammonia’s ease “to store and transport.”
Six months ago, in September 2017, I reported a $100 million joint venture announcement between Bayer and Ginkgo Bioworks that aimed to engineer nitrogen-fixing microbes, which could be put into seed coatings and provide nutrients to non-legume crops. Now, the joint venture has been named, and Joyn Bio is staffing up. For the ammonia industry, this represents potential demand destruction at a significant scale in the coming decades.
Yara International, one of the world’s largest ammonia producers, is making strides in its development of green ammonia as a fertilizer, chemical intermediate, and energy carrier. The progress is documented in the company’s 2017 annual report, released last week, and in more detail in a presentation delivered in late February at the 2018 Nitrogen + Syngas Conference in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Henrik Stiesdal is a distinguished figure in the field of wind energy. As such, he has had ample occasion to contemplate the field’s challenges and opportunities. Recently he concluded that ammonia may become an important part of wind energy’s future.
A chemicals technology firm in Belgium recently launched its vision for using green ammonia for "energy harvesting." The Dualtower is a new kind of wind turbine, under development by Arranged BVBA, that will use wind power to produce and also store hydrogen and nitrogen. These gases are "harvested" as ammonia, which becomes the energy carrier that allows large-scale renewable energy to be transported economically from remote locations with excellent renewable resources to centers of power consumption.
Arranged's Dualtower is ambitious and, perhaps, futuristic but it illustrates three powerful concepts. First, the vast untapped scalability of renewable power. Second, the benefits of using ammonia as an energy carrier, to improve the economics of large-scale, long-distance energy transportation relative to every other low-carbon technology. The third concept is simply that every idea has its time, and now may be the time for ammonia energy. What was once futuristic, now just makes sense.
New ammonia production capacity is being built in southern Africa. The outputs will support agricultural development in the region – but could also support development of ammonia as a universal energy commodity. A British start-up company is currently at work to develop a beachhead use case for ammonia energy.
Proton Ventures and Delft University of Technology (TU Delft), both of the Netherlands, announced in early February the formation of a new company, Battolyser B.V. The company’s initial goal is to build and demonstrate a pilot version of the eponymous technology that stores electricity and produces hydrogen. Hans Vrijenhoef, who will direct the new company, indicated that a fully realized system would include an ammonia production train so that the hydrogen could be stored and transported at low cost. Vrijenhoef is already the Director of Proton Ventures B.V., a member of the NH3 Fuel Association’s Global Federation Advisory Board, and the originator of the NH3 Event power-to-ammonia conference.
During development of the technical aspects of any energy project, a social perspective needs to be considered. Public opinion is going to be a fundamental parameter to determine the role of renewables in the future, with decarbonisation meaning innovation towards a comprehensive plan that involves not only technology but also psychology and how these two can benefit from each other.
Due to the importance of understanding public perception of ammonia, Cardiff University conducted a study focused on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, which currently presents high revenues in agriculture and depends on ammonia as a fertiliser. An analysis of stakeholder’s perception of ammonia was carried out to understand the different barriers and drivers of each established group.
On February 8, the Royal Society released a policy briefing entitled “Options for producing low-carbon hydrogen at scale.” The briefing evaluates the technical and economic aspects of hydrogen production methods and concludes that it is indeed feasible to produce low-carbon hydrogen at scale. Part of that feasibility, the briefing says, could be based on the use of ammonia as an expedient for hydrogen transport and storage.