CSIRO Demonstrates Ammonia-to-Hydrogen Fueling System

On August 8th Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) gave a public demonstration of its newly developed ammonia-to-hydrogen fueling technology.  In an interview this week with Ammonia Energy, Principal Research Scientist Michael Dolan reported that the demonstration drew more media attention than any event in CSIRO’s history – “by a comfortable margin.”  The reporting sounded a set of celebratory themes, summed up by this headline from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC): Hydrogen fuel breakthrough in Queensland could fire up massive new export market.  The stories, in other words, focused on what the demonstration could mean for fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) and the Australian economy.  They did not penetrate to the heart of the matter which involved a practical development whose importance can be uniquely appreciated by the ammonia energy community.

The ammonia-to-hydrogen demonstration, Brisbane, Australia, August 8, 2018. Photograph courtesy of CSIRO.

Technology demonstrations typically involve deployment of a functional technology that is operated for a defined period on a non-commercial basis.  This was the case for the CSIRO demonstration, except the period of fully integrated operation was contained within a single day.  The timing was determined by the demonstration elements that were not under CSIRO’s control.  FCVs are not yet on commercial offer in Australia and the few show vehicles on the continent are tightly scheduled for marketing purposes.  Nonetheless, Toyota and Hyundai were able to provide a Mirai and a Nexo, respectively, on the targeted date.

Toyota’s mobile hydrogen fueling Photograph courtesy of CSIRO.

Even scarcer is Toyota’s mobile hydrogen fueling unit, which is transported around Australia on an 18-wheel truck.  Its availability was the primary determinant of the demonstration date, “a couple of weeks earlier than planned,” according to Dolan.  On the CSIRO side, preparations for the demonstration system started in January 2017.  “The plant was ‘turned on’ in late March” 2018, Dolan said, and has since logged 1,000 hours of “rock-solid” operation.

Ammonia and hydrogen storage modules. Photograph courtesy of CSIRO.

The essence of the August 8 demonstration was the transfer of partially compressed hydrogen from the CSIRO system to the mobile fueling unit, followed by additional compression and the actual on-vehicle fueling step.  The cars could then take some laps showing operation on the CSIRO fuel (this part was captured by an ABC video).  This all occurred on CSIRO’s premises in Brisbane where project partner BOC (“a member of the Linde Group”) had installed a 1,000 kg storage tank.  (Click here for previous Ammonia Energy reporting on BOC’s cooperation with CSIRO.)

The conversion system itself. Photograph courtesy of CSIRO.

When the system is operating, vapor from the tank is delivered to the conversion module, where one set of tubes cracks the ammonia in a reaction mediated by a ruthenium catalyst (supplied to CSIRO’s specification by Johnson Matthey).  A second set of tubes that incorporate a vanadium membrane performs the separation of hydrogen from nitrogen.  (CSIRO’s animated video on the technology can be viewed here.)  The hydrogen fraction is then bubbled through a water bath to remove residual ammonia.  And, in theory at least, the resulting fuel is ready to power an FCV.

But theory and practice are not the same thing, and bridging the gap between the two, Dolan said, is “why we actually planned this whole event.”

Click to enlarge.  Maximum allowable contaminant limits per ISO 14687-2. Source: Hydrogen Fuel Quality, U.S. Department of Energy. Published November 2, 2016.

International Standards Organization standard 14687-2 specifies hydrogen fuel quality for polymer electrolyte / proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells in mobile applications.  Ammonia stands out for its allowable limit of just 0.1 parts per million — the second-most stringent threshold on the list.  The demonstration created a genuine moment of truth for the CSIRO technology.  As Dolan described it, “Toyota wouldn’t let our product anywhere near their car unless we had a certificate [verifying compliance with the ISO standard] – and rightfully so.”  He admitted that clearing this hurdle was “actually the cause of great stress,” and continued, “as easy as it was to get our system up and running, it was difficult to get the analysis done.”

He and his colleagues consulted sources from as far away as the United Kingdom and discovered that measuring ammonia at 0.1 parts per million is a “very non-trivial analysis.”  The solution they eventually employed involved renting an ion-flow-tube mass spectrometer and developing a custom calibration protocol.  On this basis they were able to show that their product met the standard with a measurement of “no detectable ammonia.”  This, Dolan says, was “the ultimate demonstration . . . If the car companies at this delicate stage of product development and market development are happy to put this product in their cars . . . [That] show of faith from the auto industry, Toyota and Hyundai . . . to me that is what the day was all about.”

Commenting to the ABC on the CSIRO technology, Toyota Advanced Technology Manager Matthew MacLeod said, “It’s big.  It’s a game changer.  It allows the hydrogen to be transported to markets where potentially there was no opportunity there before.”  Scott Nargar, Hyundai’s Manager of Future Mobility, also attended the demonstration.

With the demonstration successfully completed, Dolan and his colleagues are moving quickly forward with the next step of technology commercialization.  Over the ten years that CSIRO has been working on the ammonia-to-hydrogen technology, the organization and government partners have spent AUD$10 million (USD$7 million).  (AUD$3.4 million (USD$2.4 million) was spent on the demonstration system alone.)  Now, the team intends to spend another AUD$10 million on “commercial-scale demonstration” of the technology (but “not commercial,” Dolan cautions).  The targeted output will be 200 kg per day vs. the 15 kg per day that is the system’s current capacity.

Beyond the increase in scale, the going-forward effort will involve deeper investment in safety systems.  Dolan said that since the specialized conditions of the CSIRO laboratory will not exist at other deployment sites, it will be necessary to invest in equipment that meets Class I Hazardous Area Classification standards.  In addition, he says that the next-generation project will call for attention to shortcomings in the system for verifying ISO 14687 compliance.  “Measuring ultra-high-purity hydrogen is really not something [the labs] do routinely,” he says.  “I think there is a big opportunity for an entrepreneurial laboratory to position themselves as a certifying agency.”  In any case, he says, “we need to foster discussion about how you’re going to do this.”

CSIRO’s plan is to install at least two next-generation systems, one in Australia and one at an international location.  “We have a well-defined timeline with a major industrial partner,” Dolan says, admitting that more news in this regard may be forthcoming “before the end of August.”

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John Hopmans

Very good development. But the purity requirement is scary. I hope that fuel cells, ICE and gasturbines continue to be developed for (maybe partially cracked) ammonia. That would be a big boost for ammonia technology application.

Bar Mosevitzky

Great news.
Cheers to Michael Dolan and the entire CSIRO staff for a wonderful demonstration.

Jurgen Dedeurwaerder

Significant step toward availability of ammonia in filling stations.