The Center for Catalytic Science and Technology (CCST) at the University of Delaware has made new strides in the development of a direct ammonia fuel cell (DAFC) suitable for use in transportation applications. The progress is reported in “An Efficient Direct Ammonia Fuel Cell for Affordable Carbon-Neutral Transportation,” a paper published last month by Yun Zhao and six coauthors in the journal Joule. The paper gives an impressive account of CCST’s technical advances; and it makes a distinctly compelling case for the relevance of CCST’s work on DAFCs. In the latter regard, the authors find that ammonia has the “lowest source-to-tank energy cost by a significant margin” relative to other fuels that can be derived from renewably generated electricity. It is in society’s interest, they strongly imply, to give DAFC technology a chance to compete with hydrogen-based fuel cells in automotive applications.
In the news this week, California and four automakers (BMW, Ford, Honda and VW) signed an agreement on fuel economy standards, rising 3.7% per year to about 50 MPG in 2026. This agreement, as well as previous California and Federal standards, give automakers flexibility to meet the standards with incentives and credits for new technology such as electric, hybrid, and alternative fuel vehicles.
This month, researchers at the University of Minnesota began successful field tests of their new ammonia engine, operating a heavy-duty tractor across farmland near Morris, MN, on a dual-fuel blend of 70% diesel and 30% ammonia.
This week, Hydrofuel Inc announced a commercial demonstration project to convert diesel gensets and transport trucks to run on ammonia fuel, with the conversion work and dual-fuel operations scheduled for a three year period.
The CAD $2 million (USD $1.5 million) project will take place at TFX International, in Toronto, and involves the conversion of four existing diesel-fueled assets: two stationary power generators and two transport trucks. These will be converted using Hydrofuel's "aftermarket multi-fuels engine retrofit systems," and they will thereafter be able to operate on a dual fuel basis.
AFC Energy PLC, the British fuel cell company, announced on May 20 the successful conclusion of “ammonia to power (‘A2P’) fuel cell generator trials.” The result is “proof of concept” for a system consisting of an "off the shelf" ammonia cracker and a proprietary alkaline fuel cell that can readily utilize hydrogen with residual quantities of uncracked ammonia. The achievement positions AFC “to conclude work on the business case and engineering of an integrated, scalable ammonia fuelled clean power generator.”
In June 2018, MAN Diesel & Turbo rebranded itself MAN Energy Solutions, reflecting the maritime engine market leader's "strategic and technological transformation" towards sustainability. The company was "taking a stand for the Paris Climate Agreement and the global pursuit of a carbon-neutral economy." According to Uwe Lauber, Chairman of the Board, "our activities have a significant impact on the global economy. In shipping, for example, we move more than half of the global stream of goods ... [and] the path to decarbonising the maritime economy starts with fuel decarbonisation, especially in container shipping."
This week, the company took a significant step towards realizing its vision, disclosing that it is "pressing ahead with developing ... an ammonia-fuelled engine." This builds on the technology development pathway that MAN ES presented at the NH3 Energy+ Topical Conference at Pittsburgh in October 2018. The budget and timeline are set: the €5 million (USD$5.7 million) project will last two to three years and, if the shipowners decide to deploy the finished product, "the first ammonia engine could then be in operation by early 2022."
Shimshon Gottesfeld’s paper The Direct Ammonia Fuel Cell and a Common Pattern of Electrocatalytic Processes leads with a big number: “A record power density of 450 mW/cm2 has been demonstrated for a direct ammonia fuel cell [DAFC] using an alkaline membrane electrolyte.” We know it’s big because it’s 80% higher than the 250 mW/cm2 that Gottesfeld’s team had achieved in the fall of 2017 and that Gottesfeld, Adjunct Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Delaware, reported at the November 2017 NH3 Energy+ Topical Conference.
Ammonia energy received prominent mention in a review article published in the June 29, 2018 edition of Science magazine. Science is the flagship publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The paper, whose main body is almost 7,000 words long, is entitled “Net zero emissions energy systems.” While the paper's overall mission is to examine “the special challenges associated with an energy system that does not add any CO2 to the atmosphere,” the specific concerns that set it in motion relate to the idea that “energy services essential to modern civilization entail emissions that are likely to be more difficult to fully eliminate.” The paper is a detailed investigation of technological solutions that can be applied in these areas. Ammonia is highlighted as an “energy-dense liquid fuel” that could meet the needs of long-distance transportation services including aviation, long-distance trucking, and shipping.
On August 8th Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) gave a public demonstration of its newly developed ammonia-to-hydrogen fueling technology. In an interview this week with Ammonia Energy, Principal Research Scientist Michael Dolan reported that the demonstration drew more media attention than any event in CSIRO’s history – “by a comfortable margin.” The reporting sounded a set of celebratory themes, summed up by this headline from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: Hydrogen fuel breakthrough in Queensland could fire up massive new export market. The stories, in other words, focused on what the demonstration could mean for fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) and the Australian economy. They did not penetrate to the heart of the matter which involved a practical development whose importance can be uniquely appreciated by the ammonia energy community.
New data from a number of ammonia energy safety studies will be published later this year. In the meantime, two excellent reports already exist that provide comparative, quantitative risk analyses. Each compares the risks of using ammonia as a fuel in passenger vehicles against the risks of other fuels, including gasoline, LPG, CNG, methanol, and hydrogen. Both conclude that the risks associated with using ammonia as a fuel are "similar, if not lower than for the other fuels."