NEWS BRIEF: A research paper was published this week by researchers from Xiamen Univeristy in China, which "proposes a scheme for an ammonia-based energy storage system in which ammonia, an environmentally benign hydrogen carrier, is expected to [resolve] the conflicts of renewable energy supply and consumption in China."
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.
In the UK, an expansive report was published last month that examines the role of Hydrogen in a low-carbon economy. It considers ammonia's role in depth, both as a potential low-cost hydrogen carrier and as a direct fuel.
As a hydrogen carrier, "converting hydrogen to ammonia as a means of transporting it over long distances would have lower costs than transporting it as hydrogen." And used directly, ammonia is "a hydrogen-rich liquid that could be used as an alternative or complementary fuel."
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.”
In the last 12 months ...
Consider the attributes that characterize a good hydrogen carrier: liquid state at ambient conditions; high volumetric and gravimetric energy density; low propensity to create lethal hazards when transported, stored, and used. Now consider that ammonia is superior to hydrogen itself in every one of these areas. Given this, it stands to reason that proponents of hydrogen fuel cells should embrace ammonia as a valuable enabling technology that can elevate the feasibility and improve the economics of fuel-cell-based systems. And indeed this embrace became evident over the last year.
The concept of hydrogen as the centerpiece of a sustainable energy economy continues to gain momentum. It is the focus of recent reports from France and the United Kingdom that consider the topic from two distinct but surprisingly convergent national perspectives. And while ammonia is not given a role in either treatment, this seems to be because the authors' thinking has not arrived at a level of detail where ammonia's virtues become salient.
Where will fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) first achieve critical mass? Japan and California spring to mind as likely jurisdictions. South Korea not so much. That situation could change, though, with recent announcements from the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy (MTIE) in Seoul. In fact, planned public and private sector investments could push South Korea to the front of the FCV pack.
But while hydrogen-related activity of this nature can create opportunities for ammonia energy, the question always looms: are the key players in the implementing jurisdiction aware of the enabling roles ammonia can play? Hyundai is unquestionably a key player in South Korea’s FCV landscape, and, courtesy of its support for the Australian ammonia-to-hydrogen fueling demonstration that will kick off in August, Hyundai is certainly aware, and could even become a champion, of ammonia-based FCV fueling.
Last month, one Ammonia Energy post discussed Toyota’s participation in a Low-Carbon Hydrogen Project in its home prefecture -- including implicit support for ammonia as a hydrogen carrier. Another post discussed Japanese manufacturer IHI’s plans to commercialize a small-scale combined heat and power system (micro CHP) based on direct ammonia solid oxide fuel cell technology. Now, according to a June 6 Toyota Motor Corporation press release, Toyota and micro CHP have converged.
The announcement served as the unveiling of a “joint project” by Toyota and the convenience store chain 7-Eleven to develop “next-generation convenience stores aiming to considerably reduce CO2 emissions.” The two companies initially agreed to cooperate in August 2017 on "considerations toward energy conservation and carbon dioxide emission reduction in store distribution and operation.”