Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has singled out ammonia for the role it can play in the country’s creation of a “carbon-free society.” The news was embedded in METI’s New International Resource Strategy which was released on March 30. In the report’s framing, ammonia is cited for its association with “the concept of importing renewable energy produced in other countries.” In a departure from the practice found in most reports on the energy transition, the ammonia discussion stands alone and not as one item on a roster of potential renewable energy vectors.
The METI Web site says that the Strategy was produced “in light of the major changes in the environment surrounding resource and fuel policies.” In particular the report cites the “volatile situation in the Middle East” and an increasingly complex set of energy trading relationships among countries in Asia and Africa — all playing out against the country’s baseline dependence on imported energy (which consists of “almost all fossil fuels [and] which make up about 90% of primary energy”).
Three strategic concerns are addressed in the report: the security of the country’s supply of oil and LNG; its supply of “rare metals” needed for the production of batteries, motors, and semiconductors; and the need for “early realization of a decarbonized society.” Eight of the report’s 14 numbered pages are devoted to the first topic. The latter two receive three pages each.
The climate change section starts with a recap of Japan’s climate goals: reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of “26% in 2030 (compared to 2013) and 80% in 2050,” and the “aim to realize a ‘carbon-free society’ as early as possible in the latter half of this century.” The report then makes it clear that Japan has selected “carbon recycling” as the major tool in its decarbonization thrust. It provides few specifics of what will be entailed, but an article published on the Web site of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) states that “Japan’s ‘carbon recycling’ agenda includes support for technologies designed to capture carbon dioxide and use it to generate a range of commodities including chemicals, fuels and concrete products.” (The AIIA’s information derives from the proceedings of the second Japan–Australia Economic Ministerial Dialogue, which was held in Melbourne in January.)
“Expansion of use of fuel ammonia” is the only other topic addressed in the climate change section. Close reading of the text suggests that the “fuel” in “fuel ammonia” is used with specific intent. Early in the discussion there is a reference to “basic research” on ammonia conducted by the Japanese Cabinet Office’s Strategic Innovation Promotion Program (SIP) between 2014 and 2018. The research was undertaken by the SIP’s Energy Carriers team and focused on liquid hydrogen, liquid organic hydrides, and ammonia as alternative methods of transporting hydrogen over long distances. The term “fuel ammonia” may signal an interest on METI’s part in considering ammonia not just as a means of moving hydrogen from point A to point B, but as an energy commodity in its own right whose hydrogen content is of casual interest.
One hint in favor of this interpretation is the one example cited for the results of the SIP research: “It was confirmed that NOx emissions [during direct ammonia combustion], which were of concern, could be suppressed by technological development.” Another hint can be found in the list of demonstration projects called for “in order to promote the utilization of fuel ammonia[:] thermal power generation, industrial furnaces, and maritime etc.” The first two correspond directly with the near-term implementation focuses shown on the “Ammonia Supply Chain Road Map” of Japan’s Green Ammonia Consortium. The third one, the maritime use of ammonia fuel, did not start to gain momentum until late on the Energy Carriers’ timeline, but, as described in a September 2019 Ammonia Energy article, it is now the focus of at least one high-level Japanese R&D effort.
The last item but one in the ammonia discussion is a call for “feasibility studies for procurement in order to build the supply chain for fuel ammonia.” While the ammonia energy supply chain is already one of the Green Ammonia Consortium’s top focuses, the METI imprimatur will certainly further the activity.
Direct use of ammonia fuel is absolutely the best way to go. We can certainly use ammonia to provide low-cost hydrogen, but there are even larger cost reductions and technology simplifications if we use the ammonia directly. I would love to see an anion exchange membrane direct-ammonia low temperature fuel cell get scaled up. That will be an absolute game-changer for passenger vehicles. But there is a huge amount we can do before then in power generation, industrial process heat, maritime shipping, and rail transport.