Ammonia as a unicorn technology and the UK’s opportunity for COP26

The Guardian newspaper in the UK this week published a comment piece on ammonia’s potential as a “unicorn technology,” which the authors define as a technology that can “deliver a reduction of at least a billion tonnes of CO2 a year.”

The article focused on the UK’s opportunity, as host of the upcoming COP26 meeting in Glasgow this November, to take a leadership position in solving climate change. The authors, all based at the University of Oxford, outline a strategy by which the UK government could leverage existing British business and academic expertise to build global coalitions, to develop, demonstrate, and roll out “the ‘hydrammonia’ economy.”

Unicorns don’t depend on fundamental new discoveries so should be ready for large-scale deployment within a decade. With a moderate investment in research and development or other support, they could in combination unlock multiple benefits across whole “energy ecosystems”.

One example of such an ecosystem centres on converting cheap renewable energy – either from sunny places with few people, or spare wind from the North Sea – into hydrogen and ammonia, to provide zero-carbon fuel for shipping, heavy goods vehicles and even potentially aviation. They could provide the energy storage needed to complement variable wind and solar energy, process heat for industry, and turn iron ore into steel. The technologies that would unlock this ecosystem are the next generation of high-efficiency solar cells, low-cost electrolysers, and hydrogen and ammonia fuel cells and engines. All are proven technologies that simply need to be cheaper – further development could rapidly unlock a virtuous circle of falling costs and increased deployment.

Mike Mason, Cameron Hepburn, and Chris Llewellyn Smith, At the Glasgow climate conference, the UK could kickstart a green tech revolution, The Guardian, March 10, 2020

With a focus on the UK’s role as co-host of the COP26 meeting, which will be held in Glasgow this November, the authors present the argument for building “coalitions of the willing.” These global coalitions, which they describe as the logical evolution of an earlier UK project, Mission Innovation, would see the UK and other developed countries rich in intellectual property collaborate with less developed economies with “comparative advantages, such as solar resources.”

As co-chair with Italy of Cop26, the UK has an excellent opportunity to build coalitions that would lead to cheaper alternatives to fossil fuels. The UK is home to several companies and world experts in … the “hydrammonia” economy ….

In parallel with preparing for Cop26, the government should also change the UK’s broad approach … We believe the UK needs something like the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy [ARPA-E], created in the US, which “advances high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investment”.

By fostering coalitions of the willing, which would focus on clusters of unicorn technologies, the UK could make a major contribution to solving the climate crisis. Cop26 could indeed be a turning point – but it cannot simply be more of the same.

Mike Mason, Cameron Hepburn, and Chris Llewellyn Smith, At the Glasgow climate conference, the UK could kickstart a green tech revolution, The Guardian, March 10, 2020

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