Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of speaking at the International Fertilizer Association's (IFA) conference on the subject of Innovations in Ammonia. A key point was the benefit of technology diversification: as with any portfolio, whether an investment account or a global industry's range of available technologies, concentration in any area represents risk, and diversification represents resiliency. Unfortunately, the ammonia industry has grown highly concentrated, and its dependency upon one technology and one feedstock represents significant risk in tomorrow's markets.
This article features five charts that aim to demonstrate why energy efficiency is insufficient as the only measure of technology improvement, why it is better to optimize instead of maximize, and why market evolution is necessary to support investment decisions in sustainable ammonia synthesis technologies.
A recent Ammonia Energy post mentioned that in December 2017 “the Japanese government . . . approved an updated hydrogen strategy which appears to give ammonia the inside track in the race against liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid organic hydride (LOH) energy carrier systems.” While this news is positive, the hydrogen strategy remains the essential context for economic implementation of ammonia energy technologies in Japan; ammonia’s prospects are only as bright as those of hydrogen. This is why Ammonia Energy asks from time to time, how is hydrogen faring in Japan?
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.
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.
The U.S. Department of Energy H2@Scale program’s November 2017 workshop in California included mention of ammonia as a constituent of a future hydrogen economy. It also highlighted the relevance ammonia energy could have in California.
California stands out globally as a large economy that is strongly committed to development of a hydrogen economy. The state’s strategy for hydrogen-powered transportation involves reducing the production cost of renewable hydrogen and the capital and operating costs of hydrogen fueling stations. It does not explicitly address the cost of intermediate hydrogen logistics.
The question of cost is of utmost importance because California has so far put $120 million of public funds into hydrogen fueling stations and intends to invest an additional $20 million per year through 2022. The state’s aspiration is to move to a point where hydrogen that is used as a motor fuel is free of public subsidy. So it clearly behooves the state to investigate how ammonia could be used as a cost-reducing energy carrier.
Toyota is active in California’s hydrogen movement and has announced plans to build a renewable hydrogen plant that will use cow manure as a feedstock. A project with a different conception, one that draws upon the solar and wind resources of the Mojave Desert to produce renewable hydrogen and logistically advantaged ammonia, would align better with the state’s sustainability objectives.
As part of the sustainable agenda of the UK, the government, research institutions and various enterprises have looked for options to reduce the carbon footprint of the country while ensuring energy independence for several years. As a response, one of the alternatives has been to introduce the use of marine energy via the implementation of a barrage in the Severn Estuary or the development and implementation of Tidal Lagoons located around the Welsh coast. From these alternatives, the tidal lagoon concept seems to be most feasible.
Hybrid tidal and wind energy systems will produce vast amounts of energy during off-peak hours that will require the use of energy storage technologies - the size of each proposed tidal lagoon ranges close to ~1.5 GW. Currently, companies involved in the development of these complexes are thinking of batteries, pumped hydro, and ammonia as the potential candidates to provide storage for these vast amounts of energy.
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.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has just published Energy Technology Perspectives 2017, the latest in its long-running annual series, subtitled "Catalysing Energy Technology Transformations."
In this year's edition, for the first time, ammonia is featured in two major technology transformations. First, ammonia production is shown making a significant transition away from fossil fuel feedstocks and towards electrification, using hydrogen made with electrolyzers. And, following this assumption that sustainable ammonia will be widely available in the future, the IEA takes the next logical step and also classifies ammonia "as an energy carrier," in the category of future "electricity-based fuels (PtX synthetic fuels)."
The inclusion of this pair of technology transformations represents a major step towards broader acceptance of ammonia as an energy vector, from the perspectives of both technical feasibility and policy imperative.
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.