NEWS BRIEF: The industrial process for ammonia production is increasingly being recognized as a target for decarbonization - by researchers, investors, regulators, and the producers themselves. Demonstrating this shift in awareness, Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN), one of the flagship publications of the American Chemical Society (ACS), this week published an in-depth review of global research and development efforts and demonstration plants for sustainable ammonia synthesis. Its review is all-encompassing, from near-term feasible renewable Haber-Bosch plants, to long-term research areas of electrochemistry, photocatalysis, and bioengineering.
Fertilizers Europe published an important report in late 2018 that examines key drivers for the fertilizer industry and describes the "likely developments expected between now and 2030." These developments include producing "perhaps 10%" of European ammonia from renewable electricity by using electrolyzers to generate renewable hydrogen feedstock. This would require scaling up green ammonia production capacity to more than a million tons per year, within ten years.
The report, Feeding Life 2030, also describes the policy framework required "to sustain the Vision." In this vision, ammonia sits at "the crossroads of nutrition and energy" and is recognized as "the ‘missing link’ in the coming energy transformation."
One of the most interesting unanswered questions surrounding green ammonia is this: what about urea?
Last month, a major announcement by Stamicarbon ("the world market leader in design, licensing and development of urea plants") implies an answer: in the long-term context of climate change, urea as a fertilizer may simply need to be phased out.
Stamicarbon announced its new Innovation Agenda at the company's "Future Day" event in Utrecht in April. Its Innovation Agenda covers three areas: speciality fertilizers, digitalization, and "Renewable production of fertilizer (using wind or solar energy to produce fertilizer)."
Haldor Topsoe has greatly improved the near-term prospects for green ammonia by announcing a demonstration of its next-generation ammonia synthesis plant. This new technology uses a solid oxide electrolysis cell to make synthesis gas (hydrogen and nitrogen), which feeds Haldor Topsoe's existing technology: the Haber-Bosch plant. The product is ammonia, made from air, water, and renewable electricity.
The "SOC4NH3" project was recently awarded funds from the Danish Energy Agency, allowing Haldor Topsoe to demonstrate the system with its academic partners, and to deliver a feasibility study for a small industrial-scale green ammonia pilot plant, which it hopes to build by 2025. There are two dimensions to this technology that make it so important: its credibility and its efficiency.
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.
Another week, another green ammonia pilot plant.
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.