Last month I had the opportunity to reflect on “Ammonia’s Role in the Hydrogen Society.” This was the title of a speech I gave at the Ammonia Energy International Workshop in Tokyo. The Workshop was held on January 25 by the Energy Carriers initiative of the Japanese Government’s Strategic Innovation Promotion Program (SIP) as it moves toward its terminal date of March 31, and as the Green Ammonia Consortium, which grew out of the Energy Carriers program, prepares for its official launch in the same time frame. The key takeaways from my speech are that ammonia is widely seen as a contributor to the viability of hydrogen energy, but the extent of its potential role is not appreciated.
The most recent meeting of the Ammonia Energy Association-Australia was held on December 6, 2018. Ciaran McDonnell-Worth, the organization’s coordinator, reported that there was “excellent discussion throughout the meeting which was bolstered by the presence of several new participants.” One of those participants, Bassam Dally, Mechanical Engineering Professor at University of Adelaide, spoke about a novel technology for ammonia combustion that may have application in high-temperature industrial processes and beyond.
8 Rivers Capital, the developer of “the Allam Cycle, the only technology that will enable the world to meet all of its climate targets without having to pay more for electricity,” unveiled plans in November 2018 for a “billion-dollar clean energy production site” in New Zealand whose outputs are slated to include low-carbon ammonia.
That is a sentence with a lot of angles, and unpacking it will take some effort. So let’s start right in with the Allam Cycle.
The Australian report Comparison of dispatchable renewable electricity options does the very useful service of quantifying the energy storage landscape in dollars and cents. It reaches many interesting conclusions, not the least of which is that hydrogen, and by explicit extension, ammonia, is the key option for long-cycle storage. And while the study’s focus is Australia, “with costs in AUD and based on Australian conditions,” its lead author says that “much of the information and many of its findings are expected to hold independent of jurisdiction.”
ETN Global’s latest R&D Recommendation was released in October 2018. ETN stands for European Turbine Network and its technology of interest is the gas turbine. The 2018 Recommendation is notable because it is the first that includes ammonia on the R&D agenda.
Shimshon Gottesfeld’s paper The Direct Ammonia Fuel Cell and a Common Pattern of Electrocatalytic Processes leads with a big number: “A record power density of 450 mW/cm2 has been demonstrated for a direct ammonia fuel cell [DAFC] using an alkaline membrane electrolyte.” We know it’s big because it’s 80% higher than the 250 mW/cm2 that Gottesfeld’s team had achieved in the fall of 2017 and that Gottesfeld, Adjunct Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Delaware, reported at the November 2017 NH3 Energy+ Topical Conference.
By definition, members of the ammonia energy community see ammonia as the preferred form of hydrogen in many applications. Until recently, this view was not shared by most members of the hydrogen energy community. Where there was awareness at all, ammonia was often seen as dangerous or irrelevant. However, since the middle years of this decade a transition has been occurring. Lack of awareness and wariness (let’s call this stage 1) is giving way to interest in and exploration of ammonia’s potential role in discrete applications (stage 2). At some point, we may arrive at a third stage. This will be characterized by the development of sustainable energy systems that have been cost-optimized with ammonia as a staple energy commodity. In this scenario, elemental hydrogen will be the supporting actor that appears only in discrete contexts.
Hydrogen, Enabling a Zero Emission Europe, Technology Roadmaps, a report released in September 2018 by the advocacy group Hydrogen Europe, perfectly exemplifies the stage 2 mindset. Ammonia energy is discussed in a handful of instances as a narrow-scope expedient. To be sure, the report implies, ammonia could be a part of the solution. But it also might not pan out at all.
Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago that sits far above the Arctic Circle, is being considered for the back end of an electricity-to-ammonia-to-electricity (P2A2P) scheme. As reported in Norway's Teknisk Ukeblad (TU), the state-owned utility Statkraft has surfaced ammonia as one of four possible hydrogen-oriented solutions to meet Svalbard’s energy needs – and then short-listed it for further study.
Last week Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) announced the formation of a partnership that will support commercialization of CSIRO’s high-purity ammonia-to-hydrogen conversion technology. Michael Dolan, Principal Research Scientist for the ammonia-to-hydrogen project, had signaled such a development on the occasion of the technology’s first public demonstration in August 2018, saying in a contemporaneous Ammonia Energy post that the identity of “a major industrial partner” would be revealed shortly.
The partner turns out to be Fortescue Metals Group (FMG). A November 22 article in Business Insider Australia states that the company will invest “[AUD]$19.1 million [USD$13.8] in technology developed by the CSIRO to make hydrogen vehicles viable in a potential gamechanger for the transport industry.”
The 2018 NH3 Energy Implementation Conference, the first of its kind, took place on November 1 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the U.S. The focus of the Conference was on steps – current and future – that will lead to implementation of ammonia energy in the global economy. At the highest level, the Conference results validated the relevance and timeliness of the theme. In the words of closing speaker Grigorii Soloveichik, Director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E REFUEL Program, the Conference strengthened his confidence that “ammonia is a great energy carrier ... with billions of dollars of potential in prospective markets.”