The concept of hydrogen as the centerpiece of a sustainable energy economy continues to gain momentum. It is the focus of recent reports from France and the United Kingdom that consider the topic from two distinct but surprisingly convergent national perspectives. And while ammonia is not given a role in either treatment, this seems to be because the authors' thinking has not arrived at a level of detail where ammonia's virtues become salient.
A new report from Australia identifies ammonia as a key part of a hydrogen-based high-volume energy storage system. On November 20, Australia’s Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) and its Chief Scientist released “The Role of Energy Storage in Australia’s Future Energy Supply Mix.” In addition to hydrogen, the report covers pumped hydro, batteries, compressed air, and thermal systems. Its rationale for including ammonia is starkly simple: “Hydrogen gas is difficult to transport due to its low density; instead, it is proposed that hydrogen is converted to ammonia for transport, and then converted back to hydrogen for use.” Although an ultimate ranking of energy storage options is not provided, the hydrogen-ammonia combination arguably emerges as the best option in terms of economics, environmental and social impact, and deployability.
In the last 12 months ...
Ammonia energy has gained recognition from the United States Department of Energy, in both bottom-up and top-down programs. This establishes ammonia energy in the world’s largest economy as a legitimate target for both public- and private-sector investment.
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.
The Institute for Sustainable Process Technology has just published a feasibility study that represents a major step toward commercializing renewable ammonia.
It examines the "value chains and business cases to produce CO2-free ammonia," analysing the potential for commercial deployment at three companies with existing sites in The Netherlands: Nuon at Eemshaven, Stedin at Goeree-Overflakkee, and OCI Nitrogen at Geleen. The project is called Power to Ammonia.
Developers around the world are looking at using ammonia as a form of energy storage, essentially turning an ammonia storage tank into a very large chemical battery.
In the UK, Siemens is building an "all electric ammonia synthesis and energy storage system." In the Netherlands, Nuon is studying the feasibility of using Power-to-Ammonia "to convert high amounts of excess renewable power into ammonia, store it and burn it when renewable power supply is insufficient."
While results from Siemens could be available in 2018, it might be 2021 before we see results from Nuon, whose "demonstration facility is planned to be completed in five years." But, while we wait for these real-world industrial data, the academic literature has just been updated with a significant new study on the design and performance of a grid-scale ammonia energy storage system.
This week, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the leaders of 13 global companies, representing more than EUR 1 trillion in annual revenues, announced the launch of the Hydrogen Council.
This new global initiative is important for obvious reasons: it presents a compelling "united vision and long-term ambition" for hydrogen, it promises global engagement with "key stakeholders such as policy makers, business and hydrogen players, international agencies and civil society," and it pledges financial commitments to RD&D totaling EUR 10 billion over the next five years.
It is important for a subtler reason too: it is the first hydrogen industry promotion I've seen that includes ammonia. It includes ammonia both implicitly, encompassing "hydrogen and its compounds," and explicitly, listing ammonia as a "renewable fuel" in its own right.
On December 14, the journal Energy & Environmental Science published an article on a new technology, “Efficient electricity storage with a battolyser, an integrated Ni–Fe battery and electrolyser.” The lead author is Fokko Mulder, Professor of Materials for Energy Conversion & Storage at the Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) in the Netherlands.
The system developed by Mulder and his collaborators accepts electricity from an external source and stores it in the conventional manner of all batteries. The twist is that when the battery is fully charged, any additional incoming electricity is used to generate hydrogen and oxygen via electrolysis. The technology may prove to be a valuable element in a grid-scale ammonia-based energy system.
We wrote last month about the US Department of Energy funding ammonia fuel projects through ARPA-E's "REFUEL" program ("Renewable Energy to Fuels through Utilization of Energy-dense Liquids").
Although we introduced the funded projects in both the ammonia synthesis category and the ammonia fuel-use category, the REFUEL project merits further analysis as a whole because it describes a roadmap for the development of ammonia fuel systems, and identifies benchmarks for their commercial success.
Last week, ARPA-E announced funding for eight technologies that aim to make ammonia from renewable electricity, air, and water.
The technological pathways being developed include adaptations of the Haber-Bosch process - seeking improvements in catalysts and absorbents - as well as novel electrochemical processes.