During our NH3 Energy+ Topical Conference, hosted within AIChE's Annual Meeting earlier this month, an entire day of presentations was devoted to new technologies for making industrial ammonia production more sustainable.
One speaker perfectly articulated the broad investment drivers, technology trends, and recent R&D achievements in this area: the US Department of Energy's ARPA-E Program Director, Grigorii Soloveichik, who posed this question regarding the future of ammonia production: "Improvement of Haber-Bosch Process or Electrochemical Synthesis?"
The 500,000 ton per year greenfield ammonia plant under development in Washington state is making slow but steady progress. Today, it completes the public consultation period for its "scoping" exercise, which will determine the extent of its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The EIS is a more legally-robust route to the end-goal of receiving air and water permits.
This morning in Beijing, China, the International Energy Agency (IEA) launched a major new report with a compelling vision for ammonia's role as a "hydrogen-rich chemical" in a low-carbon economy.
Green ammonia would be used by industry "as feedstock, process agent, and fuel," and its production from electrolytic hydrogen would spur the commercial deployment of "several terawatts" of new renewable power. These terawatts would be for industrial markets, additional to all prior estimates of renewable deployment required to serve electricity markets. At this scale, renewable ammonia would, by merit of its ease of storage and transport, enable renewable energy trading across continents.
The IEA's report, Renewable Energy for Industry, will be highlighted later this month at the COP23 in Bonn, Germany, and is available now from the IEA's website.
Yara, the world's biggest producer of ammonia, has announced that it intends to build a demonstration plant to produce ammonia using solar power, near its existing world-scale plant in the Pilbara, in Western Australia.
It expects to complete the feasibility study this year. Next year, in 2018, Yara hopes to finish the engineering design and begin construction so that it can complete the project and begin production of carbon-free ammonia in 2019.
The EPC firm working on OCI's world-scale nitrogen complex in Iowa was supposed to hand over the keys to the plant two years ago. While IFCo is now operating and managing the site, the EPC firm is still there, finishing up, and the formal hand-over ("project acceptance") hasn't happened ... despite the fact that OCI held a ribbon-cutting ceremony back in April.
Blame the opossum, who knocked out the power for a while.
In August 2017, Cronus Chemicals announced that its proposed greenfield in Tuscola, IL, is still moving forward, with a shiny new agreement with an EPC firm, as well as a revised project scope (more ammonia, less urea), and a more realistic schedule.
Unfortunately, while this was widely reported as being a major step forward, there's a world of difference between an agreement with an EPC firm and an actual EPC agreement.
It must have been a long summer for Midwest Fertilizer Company, which has been attempting to wrangle ThyssenKrupp into a new EPC contract while mounting a challenge to the IRS. Both efforts are essential if the project is to have any chance of moving forward. Nonetheless, Midwest recently announced a revised budget along with its new groundbreaking and start-up schedule.
Today, we saw probably the single most important announcement in the five years that I've been tracking sustainable ammonia production technologies.
Global ag-input giant Bayer and MIT-spin off Ginkgo Bioworks ("we design custom microbes") announced a USD $100 million investment to engineer nitrogen-fixing bacteria into seed coatings, potentially displacing ammonia from its fertilizer market.
On the other side of the world, in the Philippines, researchers are developing another use for another bacteria: industrial-scale algal ammonia synthesis. This would allow ammonia to become a carbon-free biofuel, creating a new and much, much, much bigger market for ammonia: no longer fertilizer but energy.
Sustainable ammonia can be produced today: doing so would use electrolyzers to make hydrogen to feed the traditional Haber-Bosch process. In a very few years, new technologies will skip this hydrogen production phase altogether and make ammonia directly from renewable power in an electrochemical cell. Further down the pipeline, next generation technologies will mimic nature, specifically the nitrogenase enzyme, which produces ammonia naturally.
One of these next generation technologies is currently producing impressive results at the US Department of Energy's (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
Construction is almost complete on Fortigen's new ammonia plant in Nebraska, and "the pre-commissioning stage is now underway,” according to local press. Unfortunately, there was a significant setback on the site at the end of May, when the ammonia storage tank was damaged, which will probably delay full operations by at least a month.
LSB Industries announced last night that it has decided to "terminate the formal sale process portion of its strategic review," which it launched in November 2016. This means it is no longer seeking a buyer for the company itself, although its assets could still be available.
New research coming out of Stanford University suggests a fascinating new direction for electrochemical ammonia synthesis technology development.
The US-Danish team of scientists at SUNCAT, tasked with finding new catalysts for electrochemical ammonia production, saw that 'selectivity' posed a tremendous challenge - in other words, most of the energy used by renewable ammonia production systems went into making hydrogen instead of making ammonia.
The new SUNCAT solution does not overcome this selectivity challenge. It doesn't even try. Instead, these researchers have avoided the problem completely.
Yara released its earnings report for the second quarter yesterday, featuring a long tale of woe for nitrogen margins based around the argument that nitrogen commodity prices are depressed due to oversupply.
Still, this won't stop Yara from opening its new world-scale ammonia plant later this year, which remains on schedule at Freeport in Texas.
In May 2016, Phibro announced that it was going to invest $450 million to open a half million ton per year ammonia plant in Indiana. There's been precious little news about the project since then, but a lack of news doesn't mean that nothing is happening.
A new collaboration was announced last week, between Dutch power company Nuon, European natural gas pipeline operator Gasunie, and Norwegian oil major Statoil. The joint venture will look at converting one of the Magnum power plant's three 440 MW gasifiers, with hopes to have it running on hydrogen fuel by 2023.
This is the continuation of the Power to Ammonia project and, although ammonia is not expected to be used in this particular stage of the project, converting Magnum to hydrogen fuel represents the "intermediate step" to demonstrate that "where hydrogen could be produced using natural gas by 2023, from the year 2030 it could be possible to produce it with sustainably produced ammonia ... Ammonia then effectively serves as a storage medium for hydrogen, making Magnum a super battery."
The International Energy Agency (IEA) has just published Energy Technology Perspectives 2017, the latest in its long-running annual series, subtitled "Catalysing Energy Technology Transformations."
In this year's edition, for the first time, ammonia is featured in two major technology transformations. First, ammonia production is shown making a significant transition away from fossil fuel feedstocks and towards electrification, using hydrogen made with electrolyzers. And, following this assumption that sustainable ammonia will be widely available in the future, the IEA takes the next logical step and also classifies ammonia "as an energy carrier," in the category of future "electricity-based fuels (PtX synthetic fuels)."
The inclusion of this pair of technology transformations represents a major step towards broader acceptance of ammonia as an energy vector, from the perspectives of both technical feasibility and policy imperative.
The viability of producing ammonia using renewable energy was one of the recurring themes of the recent Power to Ammonia conference in Rotterdam. Specifically, what cost reductions or market mechanisms would be necessary so that renewable ammonia - produced using electrolytic hydrogen in a Haber-Bosch plant - would be competitive with normal, "brown" ammonia, made from fossil fuels.
A number of major industry participants addressed this theme at the conference, including Yara and OCI Nitrogen, but it was the closing speech, from the International Energy Agency (IEA), that provided the key data to demonstrate that, because costs have already come down so far, renewable ammonia is cost-competitive in certain regions today.
One of the many encouraging announcements at the recent Power-to-Ammonia conference in Rotterdam was the news that the Korea Institute of Energy Research (KIER) has extended funding for its electrochemical ammonia synthesis research program by another three years, pushing the project forward through 2019.
KIER's research target for 2019 is significant: to demonstrate an ammonia production rate of 1x10-7 mol/s·cm2.
If the KIER team can hit this target, not only would it be ten thousand times better than their 2012 results but, according to the numbers I'll provide below, it would be the closest an electrochemical ammonia synthesis technology has come to being commercially competitive.
The Institute for Sustainable Process Technology (ISPT) recently published a detailed analysis of three business cases for producing renewable ammonia from electricity: Power to Ammonia. The feasibility study concludes that, in the near term, ammonia production using clean electricity will likely rely on a combination of two old-established, proven technologies: electrolysis and Haber-Bosch (E-HB). To reach this conclusion, however, the study also assessed a range of alternative technologies, which I summarize in this article.
The Power-to-Ammonia feasibility study includes an assessment of the costs and benefits of producing ammonia from renewable energy at OCI Nitrogen's existing production site in Geleen.
Of all the companies who joined forces in the Power-to-Ammonia project, OCI is the only ammonia producer. Its business case for making carbon-free ammonia is especially interesting therefore: not just because of the company's deep understanding of the ammonia market and available technologies, but also because it faces corporate exposure to the financial, operational, and social risks of relying upon a fossil-fueled technology in a carbon constrained future.
Goeree-Overflakkee, in the southwest corner of The Netherlands, already produces more renewable power than it can consume. But, by 2020, this small island will generate a full 300 MWe of solar and wind, which far "exceeds the electricity demand on the island, rated at maximum 30 MWe peak."
Stedin, the local grid operator, has the expensive task of integrating these and future renewable resources into its electricity distribution system.
The recent Power-to-Ammonia study included a detailed analysis of Stedin's business case for producing renewable ammonia as a way to store and transport this electricity - enabling the island to become a net exporter of clean energy.
In 2012, when US Nitrogen broke ground on its new plant in Tennessee, the resurgence of the North American nitrogen industry was just beginning. Ammonia sold at high prices but, thanks to the shale gas revolution, the natural gas feedstock was cheap. As a result, profit margins were high and forecasts were rosy.
Now, it's different. Ammonia and its derivatives don't command high prices, which makes it a poor time to begin operating an expensive new plant - but those same low prices might make this a good time to begin construction.
Recent news regarding both completed and future projects illustrate the sometimes painful relationship between product pricing in a cyclical industry and the timing of investment decisions.
The simple economic argument for investing in a new ammonia plant in the US today is that ammonia prices, being cyclical, will recover from their present short-term low, but that natural gas prices, being fundamentally altered by the shale gas revolution, will stay low in the long-term.