The movement toward small-scale ammonia is accelerating for two reasons. First, small ammonia plants are flexible. And, second, small ammonia plants are flexible.
They are feedstock-flexible, meaning that they can use the small quantities of low-value or stranded resources that are widely available at a local scale. This includes flared natural gas, landfill gas, or wind power.
And they are market-flexible, meaning that they can serve various local needs, selling products like fertilizer, energy storage, or fuel; or services like resource independence, price stability, or supply chain robustness.
While the scale of these plants is small, the impact of this technology is big. As industry-insider publication Nitrogen+Syngas explained in its last issue, "as ammonia production moves toward more sustainable and renewable feedstocks the ammonia market is facing a potentially radical change."
Six months ago, in September 2017, I reported a $100 million joint venture announcement between Bayer and Ginkgo Bioworks that aimed to engineer nitrogen-fixing microbes, which could be put into seed coatings and provide nutrients to non-legume crops. Now, the joint venture has been named, and Joyn Bio is staffing up. For the ammonia industry, this represents potential demand destruction at a significant scale in the coming decades.
In the last 12 months ...
Bio-engineering has set its sights on ammonia. If we could deliver ammonia-emitting microbes to the soil we might make ammonia fertilizer obsolete; on the other hand, if we could farm them, we might establish ammonia as a new, carbon-free algal biofuel.
Today, we saw probably the single most important announcement in the five years that I've been tracking sustainable ammonia production technologies.
Global ag-input giant Bayer and MIT-spin off Ginkgo Bioworks ("we design custom microbes") announced a USD $100 million investment to engineer nitrogen-fixing bacteria into seed coatings, potentially displacing ammonia from its fertilizer market.
On the other side of the world, in the Philippines, researchers are developing another use for another bacteria: industrial-scale algal ammonia synthesis. This would allow ammonia to become a carbon-free biofuel, creating a new and much, much, much bigger market for ammonia: no longer fertilizer but energy.