Mission Possible, a major report published at the end of 2018, concludes that decarbonizing ammonia production by 2050 is both technically and economically feasible. Among its 172 pages of assumptions, analysis, and explanation, Mission Possible examines production pathways and markets for green ammonia and its derivative green nitrogen fertilizers. It addresses the relatively straightforward issue of how to replace fossil feedstocks with renewable hydrogen for ammonia synthesis, as well as the more complex question of how to source or supplant the carbon dioxide molecules contained in urea, the most common nitrogen fertilizer.
The report's economic conclusions will not surprise anyone involved in ammonia production or politics. Yes, green ammonia is currently more expensive than fossil ammonia, although it won't be for long. And no, "none of the increases in end-consumer prices are sufficiently large to be an argument against forceful policies to drive decarbonization."
McKinsey & Company, the global consulting firm, recently published a report that analyzes the "Decarbonization of industrial sectors," with a focus on the four heaviest emitters: cement, steel, ammonia, and ethylene production.
"We conclude that decarbonizing industry is technically possible ... We also identify the drivers of costs associated with decarbonization and the impact it will have on the broader energy system." Of course, "technical and economical hurdles arise," but the report provides valuable analysis of the economic levers that will be required.
At last week’s Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association Conference, Woodside Petroleum’s chief executive officer Peter Coleman spoke about the “huge” opportunity in hydrogen energy that will develop for the company over the next 10-15 years. Coleman sees the Japanese market for hydrogen as a promising destination for Woodside’s substantial reserves of natural gas, and indicated the company is evaluating alternative methods of hydrogen transport including as liquid H2, a liquid organic hydride, and ammonia.
The United States Congress passed a measure on February 9 that could galvanize the production of low-carbon ammonia in the U.S. The measure, included within the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, amends Section 45Q of the Internal Revenue Code, titled “Credit for Carbon Dioxide Sequestration”. That section, originally adopted in 2008, created a framework of tax credits for carbon capture and sequestration. 45Q’s impact in the intervening years has been minimal, an outcome attributed by experts to the relatively low prices assigned to CO2 sequestration and the fact that tax credits would be allowed only for the first 75 million tonnes of sequestered CO2. The new legislation increases the tax credit per tonne of CO2 placed in secure geological storage from $20 to $50, and for CO2 used for enhanced oil recovery from $10 to $35. It eliminates the credits cap altogether. With these changes, it now seems possible that low-carbon ammonia could find itself on an equal economic footing with “fossil” ammonia – and this could have consequences well beyond American agricultural markets.
On February 8, the Royal Society released a policy briefing entitled “Options for producing low-carbon hydrogen at scale.” The briefing evaluates the technical and economic aspects of hydrogen production methods and concludes that it is indeed feasible to produce low-carbon hydrogen at scale. Part of that feasibility, the briefing says, could be based on the use of ammonia as an expedient for hydrogen transport and storage.
Japan and Saudi Arabia are together exploring the possibility of extracting hydrogen from Saudi crude oil so that it can be transported to Japan in the form of ammonia.
According to a synopsis of the planned effort, “one option for Japan’s material contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions [would be] a supply chain for carbon-free hydrogen and ammonia produced through CCS from Saudi Arabian fossil fuels.” The synopsis emerged from a September 2017 workshop sponsored by Saudi Aramco and the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan (IEEJ).