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.
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.
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.
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.
In the race to place the automotive sector on a sustainable footing, the field is dominated by just two horses: battery-electricity and hydrogen fuel cells. The economic implementation of BEVs is already well underway, with motor companies on track in 2017 to sell more than a million vehicles globally for the first time. The economic implementation of FCVs is also in progress, albeit at a much earlier stage, and has the backing of major motor companies and public-sector agencies. Given the huge leads enjoyed by electricity and hydrogen, ammonia is scarcely seen as a contending fuel. Earlier this month, though, the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E unit published an interview with two of its program managers that has an intriguing implication: the race is far from over and ammonia may yet break to the front of the pack.
The NH3 Fuel Association has finalized details of its Sponsors Reception on Wednesday November 1 at the AIChE Annual Meeting in Minneapolis, and has also announced an additional sponsor for the conference: Starfire Energy.
In the last 12 months ...
The research community has made great progress toward solving the "selectivity challenge" in electrochemical ammonia synthesis. Although, rather than an actual solution, mostly what we have is a range of sophisticated work-arounds that succeed in making this problem moot.
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.