Techno-Economic Challenges of Green Ammonia as an Energy Vector

Techno-Economic Challenges of Green Ammonia as an Energy Vector, Agustin Valera-Medina and René Bañares-Alcántara, September 2020

Techno-Economic Challenges of Green Ammonia as an Energy Vector, a new textbook, was issued in September by scientific and technical publisher Elsevier. The 340-page volume was written by Agustin Valera-Medina of Cardiff University and René Bañares-Alcántara of Oxford University. The book is a valuable consolidation of knowledge across the many aspects of ammonia energy, and seems destined to become a go-to reference for current and future technologists, project developers, and policy makers.

I recently conducted an email interview with Valera-Medina to learn about the origins and goals of the book, and his aspirations for it. (Full disclosure: I was among the book’s contributors.)

Stephen Crolius: Congratulations to you and Dr. Bañares-Alcántara on the book!  I’m curious: where did the idea come from?

Agustin Valera-Medina: I remember receiving a call from Elsevier asking me if we wanted to publish a book on the topic of ammonia. We had received recently very good acceptance from a review published in Progress in Energy and Combustion Science, with the most downloaded paper for over a year. The manuscript entitled “Ammonia for Power” appeared to be playing an important role in disseminating the potential of ammonia as an energy vector. Therefore, the book seemed as a good manner to consolidate not only the knowledge behind the applicability of the molecule, but also to expand its horizon into all its features and challenges.

SC: When did Dr. Bañares-Alcántara come into the picture?

AVM: Many colleagues have excellent records in ammonia research, but I immediately contacted René because of his extensive work on the techno-economics of ammonia as an energy vector. I asked him, “Shall we publish a book?” He was very receptive and accepted the invitation.

SC: 28 individuals (not including you and René) are listed as contributors to the book. Why so many?

AVM: When we started writing, it was obvious that the complexity of the subject was too broad for the two of us, thus requiring the expertise of many of our academic and industrial colleagues involved on the subject of ammonia as an energy vector. With contributions that range from Japan and China, to bespoke analyses and descriptions from the U.S.A., the support from all our partners was essential to reach our final goal – a novel, unique book for students, researchers, academics, industrials, governments, and people in general that will guide them through the fascinating topic of ammonia as an energy vector.

I will say that we were very lucky to have the support from many excellent co-authors. For example, you produced a fascinating section that gathers years of expertise. So let me ask, why did you agree to support the project?

SC: Thank you for the kind words. The section I wrote, “Health and Safety Effects of Ammonia in a Maritime Context,” directly addresses the current work my consulting firm, Carbon-Neutral Consulting, is doing on ammonia as a maritime fuel. With regard to the years of expertise, I want to say that many of those years belong to two gentlemen who provided indispensable input when I was doing my research, John Mott and Kent Anderson. John spent much of his 45-year career engaging with ammonia safety issues as an executive at Gordon Brothers Industries in Australia. Kent is President Emeritus of the International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration (IIAR), and Past Chair of the Ammonia Safety & Training Institute (ASTI).

Moving on, can you provide an overview of the book’s contents?

AVM: The book explores ammonia at various levels, not only addressing all its features but also highlighting the challenges that the molecule currently faces before being fully deployed as a major energy vector. The work starts with an introduction that recognises the importance of using ammonia for climate change mitigation, whilst the following chapters explore the potential use of the molecule through a variety of roadmaps and potential applications. Exploring the science behind the production of ammonia, passing through methods of storage, distribution and handling, and ending on potential uses of NH3 and current demonstration projects, the book moves to bespoke chapters where the techno-economics of the concept are addressed. The topic is then explored in terms of health and safety issues, regulatory context, and public perception, with studies that have never been published before and that aim to fill the techno-social gap that exists in this and many other fields. Finally, the book concludes with a chapter that evaluates various paths towards the progression of several technologies, raising the potential challenges that we will encounter as we try to create a “zero carbon ammonia-based economy” for the near future.

SC: What kinds of individuals and institutions do you see as the book’s audience?

AVM: When planning the book, and due to our background, we thought about a scientific audience initially. However, as we progressed and we received support from Elsevier, it was obvious that the scope was much broader. Therefore, we prepared the book for various audiences, from readers that have a minor technical background to those with high expertise on the ammonia subject. Some sections, which are intended for the general public, highlight the complexity and main challenges of ammonia whilst being used to decarbonize our economy. Other sections, which are more fundamental and scientific, focus their scope on the current research performed in areas as complex as reaction kinetic modelling, whilst the cherries on the cake are those sections where industrial application and large demonstration projects are described. Thus, we hope to have reached a balance for students, technicians, professionals, and scientists interested in ammonia. 

SC: Being one of the co-authors of a book of this breadth gives you a unique perspective. What challenges do you see as most critical for ammonia energy at this point?

AVM: I think we have four main challenges at the moment:

  1. Cheap, efficient production of ammonia using green, sustainable sources;
  2. Large-scale conversion to power with low emissions and high stability;
  3. Public perception that enables the global deployment of the molecule as an energy vector;
  4. Feasible economics that can compete with current electro-fuels.

Out of these four, I believe that the feasible economics will be our battleground for the next decade. The reason is that other electro-fuels (i.e. methanol and methane from CO2 sequestration, hydrogen from electrolysis, etc.) have received considerable support over the last decade, support that we have started seeing in ammonia-based projects just for the last couple of years, placing our progress behind those other fuels. This fact, linked to the perception of companies that still see ammonia as an unwanted emission, will be the main areas in which our research and development will have to turn the tide to fully accept ammonia as part of the future energy mix. 

SC: I am anticipating that many elements of a working hydrogen economy will be in place by 2030. If indeed this comes to pass, what roles do you think ammonia will play in that economy?

AVM: I think the progress between ammonia and hydrogen will be in parallel, with each supporting the other for a zero-carbon transition. I cannot conceive the future energy agenda without hydrogen, in the same way that I cannot see how hydrogen will be distributed worldwide without the use of ammonia. Storage, distribution, a mature infrastructure, etc. will all play a paramount role in the use of hydrogen via ammonia. Interestingly, the most recent studies show that the smart utilization of both molecules provides the best economics, a concept that we have supported since we started working on this fascinating, challenging topic. Therefore, we are certain that ammonia will play its own role, in its niche market and applications, to support the zero-carbon economy we all are rooting for.

SC: Thank you very much. I am anticipating great things for the book!

Agustin Valera-Medina is a Reader/Associate Professor at Cardiff School of Engineering in the United Kingdom. He has been the Principal Investigator or Principal Co-Investigator on 25 industrial projects with such sponsors as PEMEX, Rolls-Royce, Siemens, Ricardo, Airbus, and EON. He has also published 161 papers, 29 of which specifically address ammonia energy. He played a significant role in the Innovate-UK “Decoupled Green Energy” Project (2015–2018) which was led by Siemens in partnership with the UK government’s Science and Technology Facilities Council and the University of Oxford, which aimed to demonstrate the use of green ammonia produced from wind energy. He is currently Principal Investigator on a project that seeks to demonstrate the use of ammonia as an efficient gas turbine fuel, and is leading the combustion work package of the European Union Horizon 2020 project FLEXnCONFU that is focusing on ammonia power in large turbine engines. He is also Principal Investigator or Principal Co-Investigator for projects related to ammonia for transportation, propulsion, and heating/cooling. Valera-Medina is also Chair of the Combustion Emissions Working Group within the Public Perception Committee of the AEA.

René Bañares-Alcántara is a Reader at the Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford in the UK, and a Fellow and Senior Engineering Tutor in New College. He has been a Principal Grant holder and/or Principal Co-Investigator in projects funded by various agencies in the UK, the European Union, and private-sector companies. Since 2014, he has been involved in projects related to long-term (chemical) storage of renewable energy, the production of green ammonia, and its role in decarbonizing the electricity sector.

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