In the last 12 months ...
We have seen repeated enunciations of a compelling logic chain: electricity generated by wind-based and photovoltaic systems is manifesting ever-more competitive economics; the greater the share of electricity generated by intermittently active resources, the greater will be the need for complementary energy storage systems; chemical forms of “X” in the power-to-X (P2X) stored-electricity construct will surely have a role to play in long-term, large-scale energy storage; ammonia may be the most advantageous chemical for such storage.
Ammonia energy received prominent mention in a review article published in the June 29, 2018 edition of Science magazine. Science is the flagship publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The paper, whose main body is almost 7,000 words long, is entitled “Net zero emissions energy systems.” While the paper's overall mission is to examine “the special challenges associated with an energy system that does not add any CO2 to the atmosphere,” the specific concerns that set it in motion relate to the idea that “energy services essential to modern civilization entail emissions that are likely to be more difficult to fully eliminate.” The paper is a detailed investigation of technological solutions that can be applied in these areas. Ammonia is highlighted as an “energy-dense liquid fuel” that could meet the needs of long-distance transportation services including aviation, long-distance trucking, and shipping.
On July 13, Science magazine, the flagship publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), published a 2,800-word “feature article" on ammonia energy. The article, headlined, “Liquid sunshine: Ammonia made from sun, air, and water could turn Australia into a renewable energy superpower,” is uniformly open-minded and upbeat. Its opening section ends with a quote from Monash University Professor of Physics and Chemistry Doug MacFarlane; “’Liquid ammonia is liquid energy,’ he says. ‘It's the sustainable technology we need.’”
MacFarlane helped launch the Australian chapter of the NH3 Fuel Association.
On June 28, Norwegian hydrogen company Nel ASA issued a press release announcing that the company will supply “448 electrolyzers and associated fueling equipment to Nikola Motor Company as part of Nikola’s development of a hydrogen station infrastructure in the U.S. for truck and passenger vehicles.” The Nikola-Nel arrangement is a globally significant step in the process of implementing a full-scale hydrogen energy economy. And although its approach for supplying green energy to hydrogen fueling stations does not involve ammonia, it seems likely it will ultimately help make the case for ammonia as an economically advantaged option.
The kernel of the story is this: Battolyser B.V. is taking a step forward with the battolyser, its eponymous energy storage technology. On June 12, Battolyser’s joint venture partners Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) and Proton Ventures announced that they had secured a €480,000 grant from Waddenfonds, a Dutch public-sector funding agency, to build a 15 kW/60 kWh version of the battolyser. The installation will take place at Nuon’s Magnum generating station at Eemshaven in the Netherlands. The move makes tangible the vision of the battolyser as an integral part of an energy supply system with a robust quota of renewably generated electricity.
The battolyser is a battery that stores electricity in the conventional galvanic manner until it is fully charged. At that point, the device uses any additional electricity supplied for the electrolysis of water and evolution of hydrogen. If the device is integrated with hydrogen buffer storage and an ammonia production train, the result will be a versatile and highly scalable energy storage system that can provide highly responsive grid support on all time scales from seconds to months. (Ammonia Energy last posted on the battolyser on March 1, 2018.)
A number of green ammonia projects have been announced in the Netherlands since the influential Power-to-Ammonia feasibility study was published in early 2017. Perhaps the most important publication since then, however, is the roadmap published by The Northern Netherlands Innovation Board, The Green Hydrogen Economy in the Northern Netherlands. Its scope, including sections written by consultants from ING, Rabobank, and Accenture, goes well beyond the standard techno-economic analysis and presents a cogent plan for coordinated development of "production projects, markets, infrastructure and societal issues."
Green ammonia features heavily throughout the roadmap, which calls for the construction of 300,000 tons per year of renewable ammonia production in Delfzijl by 2024, as well as for large-scale imports of green ammonia, starting in 2021, which would provide low-cost delivery and storage of carbon-free fuel, cracked into hydrogen, for the Magnum power plant.
The second annual Power to Ammonia conference, which took place earlier this month in Rotterdam, was a tremendous success. It was again hosted by Proton Ventures, the Dutch engineering firm and mini-ammonia-plant pioneer, and had roughly twice as many attendees as last year with the same extremely high quality of presentations (it is always an honor for me to speak alongside the technical wizards and economic innovators who represent the world of ammonia energy).
However, for me, the most exciting part of this year's event was the fact that, for the first time at an ammonia energy conference, all four of the major ammonia technology licensors were represented. With Casale, Haldor Topsoe, ThyssenKrupp, and KBR all developing designs for integration of their ammonia synthesis technologies with renewable powered electrolyzers, green ammonia is now clearly established as a commercial prospect.
The second annual European Conference on Sustainable Ammonia Solutions has announced its full program, spread over two days, May 17 and 18, 2018, at Rotterdam Zoo in the Netherlands. The international cadre of speakers, representing a dozen countries from across Europe as well as the US, Canada, Israel, and Japan, will describe global developments in ammonia energy from the perspectives of industry, academia, and government agencies.
The list of investment drivers for building new ammonia plants in the US over the last few years was short, beginning and ending with cheap natural gas. Markets change, however, and the investment drivers for the next generation of new ammonia plants might include low cost electrolyzers, low cost renewable power, carbon taxes, and global demand for ammonia as a carbon-free energy vector.
For this to make sense, however, ammonia needs to be produced without fossil fuel inputs. This is perfectly possible using Haber-Bosch technology with electrolyzers, but today's wind and solar power plants exist on a smaller scale than could support a standard (very big) Haber-Bosch plant. So, to produce renewable ammonia, small-scale ammonia production is essential.
This time series chart shows the capital intensity of today’s ammonia plants. Together, the data illustrate competitive advantages of alternative investment strategies, and demonstrate a shift away from the prior trend toward (and received wisdom of) monolithic mega-plants that rely on a natural gas feedstock.
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.