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.
The NH3 Fuel Association (NH3FA) has released the names of the organization’s charter group of sponsors. The common thread that unites the six companies? A conviction that ammonia energy represents a significant opportunity for their businesses. The sponsors are Yara, Nel Hydrogen, Airgas, Haldor Topsoe, Casale, and Terrestrial Energy.
On January 24, the nuclear energy company Terrestrial Energy USA informed the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission of its plans “to license a small modular, advanced nuclear reactor in the United States.” Many steps later – sometime in the 2020s – the American subsidiary of the Canadian company Terrestrial Energy, Inc., hopes to bring its IMSR technology to market. IMSR stands for integral molten salt reactor. The IMSR stands apart from conventional nuclear technology on several dimensions. On the dimension of operating temperature, the IMSR is hot enough that it can be beneficially integrated with high-temperature industrial processes. According to the company’s research, ammonia production could be a candidate for such integration.
Over the last few weeks, I've written extensively about sustainable ammonia synthesis projects funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE). While these projects are important, the US has no monopoly on technology development. Indeed, given the current uncertainty regarding energy policy under the Trump administration, the US may be at risk of stepping away from its assumed role as an industry leader in this area.
This article introduces seven international projects, representing research coming out of eight countries spread across four continents. These projects span the breadth of next-generation ammonia synthesis research, from nanotechnology and electrocatalysis to plasmas and ionic liquids.
In recent months, research teams from both Canada and Italy have published comparative analyses of sustainable ammonia production pathways.
These projects aim to quantify the costs and benefits of combining Haber-Bosch with a renewable hydrogen feedstock. Both projects examine the carbon intensity of ammonia production but, while the Canadian study broadens its remit to a full life cycle analysis, including global warming potential, human toxicity, and abiotic depletion, the Italian study focuses primarily on energy efficiency.
Ammonia energy proponents look forward to the day when their fuel is used in internal combustion engines – but the state of this art is unsettled and it is not clear which combustion technologies will win in the end.
A recent paper from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, published in June 2016, provides new data on the relative efficiency and safety of using ammonia as a transportation fuel. It presents a cradle-to-grave "comparative life cycle assessment" for a range of vehicles, encompassing the vehicle cycles (manufacturing, maintenance, and disposal) and the fuel cycle (operation).