Importance of Public Perception towards an Ammonia Economy

A guest post by Andrea Mercado-Guati Rojo and Agustin Valera-Medina, Cardiff University, sharing the conclusions of Mercado-Guati Rojo’s unpublished Master of Science Thesis for her M.Sc Sustainable Energy & Environment, 2017.

During development of the technical aspects of any energy project, a social perspective needs to be considered. Public opinion is going to be a fundamental parameter to determine the role of renewables in the future, with decarbonisation meaning innovation towards a comprehensive plan that involves not only technology but also psychology and how these two can benefit from each other.

Ammonia (NH3) is perceived, by some, as the crucial element for the switch to green alternatives. With its current applications as a fertiliser and chemical compound combined with the knowledge and infrastructure already established, the interest in NH3 is increasing. Due to the versatility of this gas and its advantages over other zero-carbon fuels, the concept of an ammonia system has exceptional potential for the future. Furthermore, it represents an opportunity for developing countries already involved in ammonia production through agriculture.

Due to the importance of understanding public perception of ammonia, Cardiff University conducted a study focused on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, which currently presents high revenues in agriculture and depends on ammonia as a fertiliser. An analysis of stakeholder’s perception of ammonia was carried out to understand the different barriers and drivers of each established group (government, people involved with cattle animals, and general public) following the research question: “What are people’s initial responses when presented the idea of ammonia as an energy vector.”

The results revealed that while the Mexican government is not currently interested in an ammonia system due to the initial cost and the lack of development in other countries, general population and people in the livestock industry are keen to help in the advancement of these systems via investment on the concept. Currently, Mexico imports 65% of its ammonia from the United States. However, its low cost and the investment that would be required in new infrastructure make it almost impossible to change to local production from renewables. Surveyed people admitted that all the projects to obtain ammonia from clean sources were interesting. However, they were concerned not about the toxicity of the gas, but about the cost of introducing the technology into the local market. What would change their minds? A technology that offers the same price as natural gas but with better performance.

The study applied a multi-methodological approach with a sample of 50 questionnaires and 7 interviews to people in the Mexican Government and people involved with cattle animals. The surveys were based on the initial responses before and after providing information about ammonia.

Of the 76% of people with an initial negative perceptive about the gas, 96% changed their opinion after being presented with an infographic with technical information, proving that the main barrier with general population for a technology like ammonia is the lack of information.

Click to enlarge. Infographic with technical information about ammonia: Andrea Mercado-Guati Rojo, Cardiff University, 2017.

On the other hand, during the analysis of other barriers, it was clear that the negative perception revolves around the impression that ammonia is a “dangerous gas,” a main concern of the public. Interestingly, regions far from the grid and in farmlands showed a highly positive perception of the use of ammonia as energy vector, while urban areas were concerned about the smell of the gas. It is important to highlight that most of the people interviewed affirmed that they are willing to pass over the fear of using ammonia if the gas proves to be beneficial for the environment and proper health and safety systems are implemented.

This study presents this information as a first step towards the understanding of public perception surrounding the use of ammonia as energy vector. However, in order to draw definitive conclusions and be able to complete the research with a comparison between the UK and Mexico, the School of Psychology from Cardiff University will be conducting further studies to provide an extensive opportunity to examine potential deployment of ammonia projects in two different contexts. The project will examine similarities and differences, as well as their drivers.

A guest post by Andrea Mercado-Guati Rojo and Agustin Valera-Medina, Cardiff University, sharing the conclusions of Mercado-Guati Rojo’s unpublished Master of Science Thesis for her M.Sc Sustainable Energy & Environment, 2017.

2 comments

  1. Joe Beach says:

    Thank you for this information, it is helpful for people who want to commercialize NH3 fuel, like me.

    Overall I like the infographic, but I would like to suggest some small changes:
    – NH3 is actually not toxic. Rather, it is corrosive when it mixes with water. This is an important distinction when it comes to dealing with accidental releases. It is more similar to acids and bases than it is to actual toxic compounds like cyanide and phosphine (and gasoline, which contains known carcinogens).
    – From an engineering and safety perspective, NH3’s distinctive odor should be moved from the Disadvantage column to the Advantage one. Natural gas has no odor, so we actually add chemicals to it to give it an odor so people can smell small leaks and get them fixed before they explode. NH3’s intrinsic odor will ensure that leaks are fixed when they are small, before they cause problems.

  2. John Hopmans says:

    I think it is not so relevant whether you ask Mexican farmers what they think of NH3 as energy vector. I think NH3 should play a role at a much higher level: the dispatchable source of energy that replaces the fossil fuels as dispatchable source of energy. In other words: make phone call and have it delivered.
    In December I was in Netherlands and during 4 weeks we had grey weather, short daylight and no wind. I think the daily Capacity Factors for wind and sun that month were very low and battery storage would only have helped for 4 days or so.
    I have a big problem believing models that predict that we can survive in 2050 with renewables and 4 days of storage only.
    Which products would be practical as transportable, storable energy, so dispatchable in a fossil fuel free world:
    1. Methanol
    2. Hydrocarbons
    3. Ammonia
    For methanol and hydrocarbons, carbon dioxide has to be used and that will be expensive by then. It has to be captured from biomass/waste combustion and cement industry. A more remote source could be the recovery of carbon dioxide from air, containing 400+ ppmv of CO2. Maybe using CO2 adsorption in active coal coated natural draft adsorption towers?
    But the CO2 recovered from any source and converted into hydrocarbon via artificial photosynthesis and Fischer-Tropsch or converted into methanol will also be competing as feed stock for the Petro Chemical Industry (and maybe still for aviation). At the moment about 15 million barrels a day of oil are used in Petrochemicals!
    So methanol and hydrocarbons require expensive carbon dioxide and expensive hydrogen and ammonia requires cheap nitrogen and expensive hydrogen which tilts the balance into the development of ammonia for transportable storable energy. (Hydrogen is expensive for now because of the CAPEX for electrolysers)
    Questions to be answered:
    1. Can we produce NH3 on a commercial scale in place A which has plenty of renewable resource?
    2. Can we use LNG infrastructure (tanks, ships,) to transport liquid NH3 at -33 oC ?
    3. Can we crack NH3 on a commercial scale in place B into H2 feed to existing CCGT plants?
    And please do not wait too long because the opponents of renewable energy use the same argument to delay the implementation of renewables.
    By the way pumped hydro will only last a couple of days more, but is not a good idea in Netherlands.

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