A May 2019 paper published in Science reports on a technological advance that may have significant implications for ammonia production. The paper, Electrified methane reforming: A compact approach to greener industrial hydrogen production, presents a method for providing the heat required for steam methane reforming from renewable electricity instead of natural gas. The carbon intensity of ammonia production could thereby be reduced by about 30%.
And, last month, Haldor Topsøe announced that it plans to build a demonstration plant in Denmark that will produce “CO2-neutral methanol from biogas using eSMR technology.” The plant is expected to be “fully operational in the beginning of 2022.”
This week, two industry members of the Ammonia Energy Association announced that they have launched a "strategic collaboration." Coming from opposite ends of the ammonia energy value chain, one specialized in production and the other in combustion, this new partnership allows the two companies to "complete the chain of using ammonia as an energy solution."
Using greener feedstocks at low pressures and temperatures, with higher conversion rates and less greenhouse gases is considered a pipe dream. The technology and equipment simply wasn’t available ... until now. The case for small-scale, energy efficient ammonia production is well documented, but access to funds may not be. Now, Manufacturing USA and the Manufacturing Extension Partnership may offer a new path to success.
The movement toward small-scale ammonia is accelerating for two reasons. First, small ammonia plants are flexible. And, second, small ammonia plants are flexible.
They are feedstock-flexible, meaning that they can use the small quantities of low-value or stranded resources that are widely available at a local scale. This includes flared natural gas, landfill gas, or wind power.
And they are market-flexible, meaning that they can serve various local needs, selling products like fertilizer, energy storage, or fuel; or services like resource independence, price stability, or supply chain robustness.
While the scale of these plants is small, the impact of this technology is big. As industry-insider publication Nitrogen+Syngas explained in its last issue, "as ammonia production moves toward more sustainable and renewable feedstocks the ammonia market is facing a potentially radical change."
Over the last few years, world-scale ammonia plants have been built, restarted, and relocated across the US. The last of these mega-projects began operations at Freeport in Texas last month. No more new ammonia plants are currently under construction in the US, and the received industry wisdom is that no more will begin construction.
However, project developers and ammonia start-ups did not get this memo. With low natural gas prices persisting, they have not stopped announcing plans to build new plants. The difference is that the next tranche of new ammonia plants breaking ground will not be world-scale but regional-scale, with production capacities of perhaps only one tenth the industry standard. Despite using fossil feedstocks, these plants will set new efficiency and emissions standards for small-scale ammonia plants, and demonstrate novel business models that will profoundly alter the future industry landscape for sustainable ammonia technologies.