Technology Advances for Blue Hydrogen and Blue Ammonia

ANNUAL REVIEW 2019

Blue hydrogen – defined as the version of the element whose production involves carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) – represents an alluring prospect for the energy transition.  The primary “blue” feedstocks, natural gas and coal, currently set the low-cost benchmarks for storable energy commodities.  With the addition of CCS, they are expected to set the low-cost benchmarks for low-carbon storable energy commodities.  Blue ammonia is very much included in this frame of reference since CCS could be applied to the CO2 waste stream from the Haber-Bosch process.  But neither blue hydrogen nor blue ammonia are sure things; a variety of technical, financial, regulatory, and social issues could stand in the way of their widespread adoption.

This point was brought home in a December 2018 report, Mission Possible, from the United Kingdom’s Energy Transitions Commission (“a coalition of business, finance and civil society leaders from across the spectrum of energy producing and using industries”).  While concluding that full decarbonization of ammonia by 2050 is technically and economically feasible , the report also anticipates a relatively small role for blue ammonia in the eventual mix of technologies.  (Green ammonia, produced from renewable electricity, would play the dominant role.)  The reason for this is the high cost of capturing the final 10-20% of the CO2 produced in the process.  But this conclusion is premised on current technology.  Work on new technologies that have the potential to change this dynamic has come increasingly into view over the last twelve months.  Three efforts within this field will be discussed on November 13 during session 436 (“Ammonia Synthesis: Decarbonizing Hydrocarbon Feedstocks and Fuels”) at the Ammonia Energy Topical Conference.

Leading off will be Matteo Masanti, a Technology Engineer at chemical engineering company Casale SA (an Ammonia Energy Association member).  Masanti will discuss a newly patented process “to convert natural gas to ammonia with reduced CO2 emissions to atmosphere as low as less than 0.2 MT CO2 / MT H2 to stack which is about 80% lower with respect to Best Available Technologies.”  The abstract for his paper provides an intriguing glimpse into Casale’s approach: There will be no “dedicated CDR [carbon dioxide removal] unit for post-combustion carbon capture of flue gases;” rather, “decarbonization targets are reached basing on a pre-combustion strategy.”

Later in the session, team members from Lamar University in Texas will discuss their modeling of an ammonia plant designed for integration within an Allam cycle electricity generation station. The Allam cycle’s developer, technology company NET Power, made a splash in November 2018 with its announcement of plans for a “billion-dollar clean energy production site” in New Zealand whose outputs will include low-carbon ammonia.  According to the Lamar abstract, “this integrated new process has been virtually demonstrated to be economically sound, technological viable, and environmentally benign due to the comprehensive utilization of cheap natural gas resource as well as heat and work integrations among different process units.”

Also in this session is a paper from technology developer Monolith Materials on their “novel electric process for converting natural gas into carbon, in the form of carbon black, and hydrogen, at high yield.”  As this description suggests, carbon for Monolith is not a waste product but a substance that can take the form of a commercially valuable commodity.  The paper’s abstract also highlights the company’s interest in “pursuing opportunities to increase the value of our hydrogen co-product, including conversion into electricity, methanol, and ammonia.”  (Australia’s HazerGroup also has a process for converting natural gas into carbon and hydrogen, and also sees the carbon output – in the form of synthetic graphite – as valuable in its own right.)

A new technology that will not be discussed at the Topical Conference represents a more incremental approach with an incremental benefit.  This is the so-called eSMR, as developed by a team in Denmark whose members include technologists from chemical engineering company (and Ammonia Energy Association member) Haldor Topsoe.  This technology involves the use of renewably generated electricity as a supplemental source of process heat for the steam methane reforming step of hydrogen feedstock production in an ammonia plant.  It is projected to cut CO2 emissions from ammonia production by approximately 30%.

AMMONIA ENERGY REPORTING ON THIS TOPIC SINCE LAST YEAR

A YEAR IN REVIEW

This article is part of our Annual Review 2019. To mark the third anniversary of Ammonia Energy, we are highlighting ten “tip-of-the-iceberg” topics that we’ve written about over the last 12 months. In each case, we think we see something just peeking above the current flow of events that is developing into a major phenomenon below the surface.

Read all the stories in our Annual Review 2019.

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