Last week, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) formally adopted its Initial GHG Strategy. This means that the shipping industry has committed to "reduce the total annual GHG emissions by at least 50% by 2050," and completely "phase them out, as soon as possible in this century."
This also means that a global industry is searching for a very large quantity of carbon-free liquid fuel, with a production and distribution infrastructure that can be scaled up within decades. The most viable option is ammonia. How much would be required? Roughly one million tons of ammonia per day.
Six months ago, in September 2017, I reported a $100 million joint venture announcement between Bayer and Ginkgo Bioworks that aimed to engineer nitrogen-fixing microbes, which could be put into seed coatings and provide nutrients to non-legume crops. Now, the joint venture has been named, and Joyn Bio is staffing up. For the ammonia industry, this represents potential demand destruction at a significant scale in the coming decades.
Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of speaking at the International Fertilizer Association's (IFA) conference on the subject of Innovations in Ammonia. A key point was the benefit of technology diversification: as with any portfolio, whether an investment account or a global industry's range of available technologies, concentration in any area represents risk, and diversification represents resiliency. Unfortunately, the ammonia industry's defined path for emissions reductions through 2050 requires an increasing dependency upon one technology and one carbon-based feedstock. This represents significant risk in tomorrow's carbon-constrained markets.
This article features five charts that aim to demonstrate why the industry's focus on energy efficiency is insufficient as the only measure of technology improvement, why it is better to optimize rather than maximize, and why market evolution is supporting investment decisions in sustainable ammonia synthesis technologies.
A chemicals technology firm in Belgium recently launched its vision for using green ammonia for "energy harvesting." The Dualtower is a new kind of wind turbine, under development by Arranged BVBA, that will use wind power to produce and also store hydrogen and nitrogen. These gases are "harvested" as ammonia, which becomes the energy carrier that allows large-scale renewable energy to be transported economically from remote locations with excellent renewable resources to centers of power consumption.
Arranged's Dualtower is ambitious and, perhaps, futuristic but it illustrates three powerful concepts. First, the vast untapped scalability of renewable power. Second, the benefits of using ammonia as an energy carrier, to improve the economics of large-scale, long-distance energy transportation relative to every other low-carbon technology. The third concept is simply that every idea has its time, and now may be the time for ammonia energy. What was once futuristic, now just makes sense.
This week, the government of South Australia announced a "globally-significant demonstrator project," to be built by the hydrogen infrastructure company Hydrogen Utility (H2U). The renewable hydrogen power plant will cost AUD$117.5 million ($95 million USD), and will be built by ThyssenKrupp Industrial Solutions with construction beginning in 2019.
The plant will comprise a 15 MW electrolyzer system, to produce the hydrogen, and two technologies for converting the hydrogen back into electricity: a 10MW gas turbine and 5MW fuel cell. The plant will also include a small but significant ammonia plant, making it "among the first ever commercial facilities to produce distributed ammonia from intermittent renewable resources."
A new study examines the technologies needed to produce renewable ammonia from offshore wind in the US, and analyzes the lifetime economics of such an operation.
This is the latest in a years-long series of papers by a team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). And it is by far the closest they have come to establishing sustainable ammonia as being cost-competitive with fossil ammonia.
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 75% 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?"
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.
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).
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.
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.