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."
At the recent NH3 Energy Implementation Conference in Pittsburgh, USA, the keynote speech was given by Shigeru Muraki, Program Director of Japanese government's SIP Energy Carriers project. Muraki is also Chairman of the Green Ammonia Consortium, which will assume responsibility for coordinating the development and deployment of ammonia energy technologies in Japan when the SIP concludes in April 2019.
Given both these roles, Muraki was well placed to address not only the recent years of intense research and development in Japan, but also the near-term roadmap for commercial deployment of ammonia energy technologies.
In the last 12 months ...
Green ammonia pilot plants began operations in the UK and Japan, and new demonstration plants were announced in Australia, Denmark, Morocco, and the Netherlands (more, yet to be announced, are in development). Fertilizer company CEOs spoke about how green ammonia fits their corporate strategy. And all four of the global licensors of ammonia technology made it abundantly clear that they are ready and willing to build your green ammonia plant, today.
Siemens Gamesa, the world's largest wind turbine manufacturer (by installed capacity), has announced a partnership with local climate innovation fund Energifonden Skive to investigate the production of ammonia from wind power at an eco-industrial hub in Denmark's "Green Tech Valley." The announcement describes "an agreement to jointly explore eco-friendly ammonia production as a way to store surplus electricity from wind turbines. The goal: a pilot plant at GreenLab Skive."
Last week, OCP Group announced plans to develop green hydrogen and green ammonia as sustainable raw materials for use in fertilizer production. This includes building pilot plants in both Germany, already under construction, and Morocco, yet to begin construction, as well as "the possible establishment of an African Institute for Solar Ammonia."
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.
Two new pilot projects for producing "green ammonia" from renewable electricity are now up and running and successfully producing ammonia.
In April 2018, the Ammonia Manufacturing Pilot Plant for Renewable Energy started up at the Fukushima Renewable Energy Institute - AIST (FREA) in Japan. Earlier this week, Siemens launched operations at its Green Ammonia Demonstrator, at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory outside Oxford in the UK.
The commercial product coming out of these plants is not ammonia, however, it is knowledge.
While both the FREA and Siemens plants are of similar scale, with respective ammonia capacities of 20 and 30 kg per day, they have very different objectives. At FREA, the pilot project supports catalyst development with the goal of enabling efficient low-pressure, low-temperature ammonia synthesis. At Siemens, the pilot will provide insights into the business case for ammonia as a market-flexible energy storage vector.
The list of investment drivers for building new ammonia plants in the US over the last few years was short, beginning and ending with cheap natural gas. Markets change, however, and the investment drivers for the next generation of new ammonia plants might include low cost electrolyzers, low cost renewable power, carbon taxes, and global demand for ammonia as a carbon-free energy vector.
For this to make sense, however, ammonia needs to be produced without fossil fuel inputs. This is perfectly possible using Haber-Bosch technology with electrolyzers, but today's wind and solar power plants exist on a smaller scale than could support a standard (very big) Haber-Bosch plant. So, to produce renewable ammonia, small-scale ammonia production is essential.
This time series chart shows the capital intensity of today’s ammonia plants. Together, the data illustrate competitive advantages of alternative investment strategies, and demonstrate a shift away from the prior trend toward (and received wisdom of) monolithic mega-plants that rely on a natural gas feedstock.