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.
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.”
The Japanese manufacturer IHI Corporation announced on March 28 that it had successfully demonstrated the co-firing of ammonia and coal in a fuel mix composed of 20% ammonia. Ammonia-coal co-firing had previously been demonstrated by Chugoku Electric in a fuel mix composed of just 0.6-0.8% ammonia.
IHI says its ultimate goal is to “construct a value chain that connects the production and use of ammonia, using combustion technology of gas turbines and coal-fired boilers, using ammonia as fuel.”
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.
Last month, an important new consortium in the Netherlands announced its intention to research and demonstrate "the technical feasibility and cost effectiveness of an ammonia tanker fuelled by its own cargo." This two-year project will begin with theoretical and laboratory studies, and it will conclude with a pilot-scale demonstration of zero-emission marine propulsion using ammonia fuel in either an internal combustion engine or a fuel cell.
This week, the government of South Australia announced a "globally-significant demonstrator project," to be built by the hydrogen infrastructure company Hydrogen Utility (H2U). The renewable hydrogen power plant will cost AUD$117.5 million ($95 million USD), and will be built by ThyssenKrupp Industrial Solutions with construction beginning in 2019.
The plant will comprise a 15 MW electrolyzer system, to produce the hydrogen, and two technologies for converting the hydrogen back into electricity: a 10MW gas turbine and 5MW fuel cell. The plant will also include a small but significant ammonia plant, making it "among the first ever commercial facilities to produce distributed ammonia from intermittent renewable resources."
Last month, a heavyweight consortium of local and global companies announced plans to collaborate on a project to design, build, operate, and evaluate a demonstration plant to produce "green ammonia" from water, air, and renewable energy in The Netherlands.
This is one practical outcome of last year's Power-to-Ammonia study, which examined the economic and technical feasibility of using tidal power off the island of Goeree-Overflakkee in Zuid-Holland to power a 25 MWe electrolyzer unit, and feed renewable hydrogen to a 20,000 ton per year green ammonia plant.
This new demonstration plant phase of the project will still be led by the original developer, Dutch mini-ammonia plant developer Proton Ventures. However, its partners in the venture now include Yara and Siemens, as well as speciality fertilizer producer Van Iperen, and local sustainable agricultural producer, the Van Peperstraten Groep.
On December 8, the Nikkei Sangyo Shimbun ran a story about the future of coal-fired electricity generation in Japan. The story touched on topics ranging from the plumbing in a Chugoku Electric generating station to the Trump administration’s idiosyncratic approach to environmental diplomacy. And it contained this sentence: “Ammonia can become a ‘savior’ of coal-fired power.”
To demonstrate the progress of the SIP "Energy Carriers" program, the Japan Science and Technology Agency last week released a video, embedded below, that shows three of its ammonia fuel research and development projects in operation.
R&D is often an abstract idea: this video shows what it looks like to generate power from ammonia.
As it turns out, fuel cells aren't hugely photogenic. Nonetheless, if a picture is worth a thousand words, this will be a long article.