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.
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 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.
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?
This series of articles on the future of ammonia synthesis began with a report on the NH3 Energy+ conference presentation by Grigorii Soloveichik, Program Director at the US Department of Energy's ARPA-E, who categorized the technologies as being either improvements on Haber-Bosch or electrochemical (with exceptions).
ARPA-E invests in "transformational, high-risk, early-stage research," and recently began funding ammonia synthesis technologies, not to make renewable fertilizer but to produce "energy-dense zero-carbon liquid fuel." This article will introduce the six electrochemical technologies currently in development with funding from ARPA-E.
Last week, in Part 1 of this series on electrochemical ammonia synthesis technologies, I quoted a recent article by researchers at MIT that identified avenues for future research and development. One option was a biomimicry approach, learning from "enzymatic catalysts, such as nitrogenases," which can "either be incorporated into or provide inspiration for the design of electrocatalytic processes."
The nitrogenase enzyme, nature's ammonia synthesis technology, was developed in an iterative innovation process, otherwise known as evolution, that took hundreds of millions of years to reach this level of efficiency. According to one group of electrochemists, who presented their results at the recent NH3 Energy+ conference, nitrogenase produces ammonia in nature with an enviable 75% process efficiency - so it's no surprise that they are basing their industrial technology on it.
Last month's NH3 Energy+ conference featured presentations on a great range of novel ammonia synthesis technologies, including improvements to Haber-Bosch, and plasmas, membranes, and redox cycles. But, in a mark of a conference approaching maturity, members of the audience had at least as much to contribute as the presenters.
This was the case for electrochemical synthesis technologies: while the presentations included updates from an influential industry-academia-government collaboration, led by Nel Hydrogen's US subsidiary, the audience members represented, among others, the new electrochemical ammonia synthesis research lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and a team from Monash University in Australia. The very next week, Monash published its latest results, reporting an electrochemical process that synthesized ammonia with 60% faradaic efficiency, an unprecedented rate of current conversion at ambient pressure and temperature.
Speaking at the NH3 Energy+ Topical Conference last month, University of Delaware Adjunct Professor Shimshon Gottesfeld reported on progress made by the university’s direct ammonia fuel cell (DAFC) project. Evidently, the UDel team is now a big step closer to its goal of establishing the DAFC as a viable automotive power plant.
I wrote recently about two pathways for ammonia production technology development: improvements on Haber-Bosch, or electrochemical synthesis.
Last week, I covered some of these Haber-Bosch improvements; next week, I'll write about electrochemical processes. This week, I want to write about some innovations that don't fit this two-way categorization: they don't use electrochemistry and they don't build upon the Haber-Bosch process, and that might be the only thing that links them.
At the recent NH3 Energy+ Topical Conference, Grigorii Soloveichik described the future of ammonia synthesis technologies as a two-way choice: Improvement of Haber-Bosch or Electrochemical Synthesis.
Two such Haber-Bosch improvement projects, which received ARPA-E-funding under Soloveichik's program direction, also presented papers at the conference. They each take different approaches to the same problem: how to adapt the high-pressure, high-temperature, constant-state Haber-Bosch process to small-scale, intermittent renewable power inputs. One uses adsorption, the other uses absorption, but both remove ammonia from the synthesis loop, avoiding one of Haber-Bosch's major limiting factors: separation of the product ammonia.