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.
“Carbon-free ammonia needs to be a significant contributor to the H2@Scale initiative.” This was one of the “key takeaways” offered by Steve Szymanski, Director of Business Development at the hydrogen generator company Proton On-Site, during his presentation at the H2@Scale Workshop that was held on May 23-24 at the University of Houston in the U.S. By the time Szymanski left the podium, ammonia energy had moved a good distance from the periphery of the H2@Scale conceptual map toward its center.
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.
In Australia this week, CSIRO announced funding for the "final stages of development" of its metal membrane technology to produce high-purity hydrogen from ammonia. The two year research project aims to get the technology "ready for commercial deployment," with industrial partners including Toyota and Hyundai.
This week, an important new voice joined the chorus of support for renewable ammonia and its potential use as an energy vector - the International Energy Agency (IEA).
In his article, Producing industrial hydrogen from renewable energy, Cédric Philibert, Senior Energy Analyst at the IEA, identifies a major problem with the hydrogen economy: hydrogen is currently made from fossil fuels. But his argument for producing hydrogen from renewable energy leads almost inevitably to ammonia: "In some not-too-distant future, ammonia could be used on its own as a carbon-free fuel or as an energy carrier to store and transport energy conveniently."
The shipping industry is beginning to evaluate ammonia as a potential "bunker fuel," a carbon-free alternative to the heavy fuel oil (HFO) used in maritime transport.
International trade associations are leading the effort to decarbonize the sector, in alignment with targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement. Their immediate challenge is simple to state but hard to solve: "ambitious CO2 reduction objectives will only be achievable with alternative marine fuels which do not yet exist." In the long-term, however researchers recognize that "fuel cell-powered ships are likely to dominate, drawing their energy from fuels such as hydrogen and ammonia."
Most of the ammonia energy projects I write about are in the research and development phase but, as I've said before, technology transfer from the academic lab to commercial deployment is moving swiftly - especially in Japan.
Last week, Nikkei Asian Review published two articles outlining plans by major engineering and power firms to build utility-scale demonstrations using ammonia as a fuel for electricity generation. Both projects aim to reduce the carbon intensity of the Japanese electrical grid, incrementally but significantly, by displacing a portion of the fossil fuels with ammonia. The first project will generate power using an ammonia-coal mix, while the second will combine ammonia with natural gas.
The US Department of Energy (DOE) is currently supporting six fundamental research projects that will develop "novel catalysts and mechanisms for nitrogen activation," which it hopes will lead to future sustainable ammonia synthesis technologies.
These projects, announced in August 2016 and administered by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences, aim "to investigate some of the outstanding scientific questions in the synthesis of ammonia (NH3) from nitrogen (N2) using processes that do not generate greenhouse gases."