The list of investment drivers for building new ammonia plants in the US over the last few years was short, beginning and ending with cheap natural gas. Markets change, however, and the investment drivers for the next generation of new ammonia plants might include low cost electrolyzers, low cost renewable power, carbon taxes, and global demand for ammonia as a carbon-free energy vector.
For this to make sense, however, ammonia needs to be produced without fossil fuel inputs. This is perfectly possible using Haber-Bosch technology with electrolyzers, but today's wind and solar power plants exist on a smaller scale than could support a standard (very big) Haber-Bosch plant. So, to produce renewable ammonia, small-scale ammonia production is essential.
This time series chart shows the capital intensity of today’s ammonia plants. Together, the data illustrate competitive advantages of alternative investment strategies, and demonstrate a shift away from the prior trend toward (and received wisdom of) monolithic mega-plants that rely on a natural gas feedstock.
The developers behind the proposed world-scale ammonia plant in Topolobampo, Mexico, are quietly moving forward again.
This illustrates how hard it can be to challenge unwanted industrial development.
This also illustrates the local impact of a national statistic. The US became "a net exporter of natural gas on an annual basis in 2017 for the first time since 1957," in part due to new pipelines to Mexico, which benefitted from industrial anchor customers creating a future market for that gas.
Thus, Topolobampo ammonia: vertical integration of the value chain.
The urea brownfield in Beulah, North Dakota, has been under construction since mid-2014. It didn't start-up in early 2017, as originally scheduled, but it is now, finally, more-or-less finished, and its owners have announced a new schedule for the start of production.
Last month, a heavyweight consortium of local and global companies announced plans to collaborate on a project to design, build, operate, and evaluate a demonstration plant to produce "green ammonia" from water, air, and renewable energy in The Netherlands.
This is one practical outcome of last year's Power-to-Ammonia study, which examined the economic and technical feasibility of using tidal power off the island of Goeree-Overflakkee in Zuid-Holland to power a 25 MWe electrolyzer unit, and feed renewable hydrogen to a 20,000 ton per year green ammonia plant.
This new demonstration plant phase of the project will still be led by the original developer, Dutch mini-ammonia plant developer Proton Ventures. However, its partners in the venture now include Yara and Siemens, as well as speciality fertilizer producer Van Iperen, and local sustainable agricultural producer, the Van Peperstraten Groep.
This series of articles on the future of ammonia synthesis began with a report on the NH3 Energy+ conference presentation by Grigorii Soloveichik, Program Director at the US Department of Energy's ARPA-E, who categorized the technologies as being either improvements on Haber-Bosch or electrochemical (with exceptions).
ARPA-E invests in "transformational, high-risk, early-stage research," and recently began funding ammonia synthesis technologies, not to make renewable fertilizer but to produce "energy-dense zero-carbon liquid fuel." This article will introduce the six electrochemical technologies currently in development with funding from ARPA-E.
Last week, in Part 1 of this series on electrochemical ammonia synthesis technologies, I quoted a recent article by researchers at MIT that identified avenues for future research and development. One option was a biomimicry approach, learning from "enzymatic catalysts, such as nitrogenases," which can "either be incorporated into or provide inspiration for the design of electrocatalytic processes."
The nitrogenase enzyme, nature's ammonia synthesis technology, was developed in an iterative innovation process, otherwise known as evolution, that took hundreds of millions of years to reach this level of efficiency. According to one group of electrochemists, who presented their results at the recent NH3 Energy+ conference, nitrogenase produces ammonia in nature with an enviable 66% process efficiency - so it's no surprise that they are basing their industrial technology on it.
Last month's NH3 Energy+ conference featured presentations on a great range of novel ammonia synthesis technologies, including improvements to Haber-Bosch, and plasmas, membranes, and redox cycles. But, in a mark of a conference approaching maturity, members of the audience had at least as much to contribute as the presenters.
This was the case for electrochemical synthesis technologies: while the presentations included updates from an influential industry-academia-government collaboration, led by Nel Hydrogen's US subsidiary, the audience members represented, among others, the new electrochemical ammonia synthesis research lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and a team from Monash University in Australia. The very next week, Monash published its latest results, reporting an electrochemical process that synthesized ammonia with 60% faradaic efficiency, an unprecedented rate of current conversion at ambient pressure and temperature.
I wrote recently about two pathways for ammonia production technology development: improvements on Haber-Bosch, or electrochemical synthesis.
Last week, I covered some of these Haber-Bosch improvements; next week, I'll write about electrochemical processes. This week, I want to write about some innovations that don't fit this two-way categorization: they don't use electrochemistry and they don't build upon the Haber-Bosch process, and that might be the only thing that links them.
The company behind the Texas Clean Energy Project (TCEP) filed for bankruptcy protection in October 2017, ending any hope that it would build its proposed million-ton-per-year "clean coal" urea plant.
This means that every one of the "clean coal" ammonia synthesis projects I've been tracking since 2012 has failed: in California, in Mississippi, and now in Texas. That's three strikes; if hydrogen sources were like baseball, coal would be out.
These projects all shared jaw-dropping cost escalations and multi-year delays that forced financing partners to withdraw.
At the recent NH3 Energy+ Topical Conference, Grigorii Soloveichik described the future of ammonia synthesis technologies as a two-way choice: Improvement of Haber-Bosch or Electrochemical Synthesis.
Two such Haber-Bosch improvement projects, which received ARPA-E-funding under Soloveichik's program direction, also presented papers at the conference. They each take different approaches to the same problem: how to adapt the high-pressure, high-temperature, constant-state Haber-Bosch process to small-scale, intermittent renewable power inputs. One uses adsorption, the other uses absorption, but both remove ammonia from the synthesis loop, avoiding one of Haber-Bosch's major limiting factors: separation of the product ammonia.
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.