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.
The Institute for Sustainable Process Technology recently published a feasibility study, Power to Ammonia, looking at the possibility of producing and using ammonia in the renewable power sector. This project is based in The Netherlands and is led by a powerful industrial consortium.
I wrote about the feasibility study last month, but it deserves closer attention because it examines three entirely separate business cases for integrating ammonia into a renewable energy economy, centered on three site-specific participants in the study: Nuon at Eemshaven, Stedin at Goeree-Overflakkee, and OCI Nitrogen at Geleen.
Over the next few years, the group intends to build pilot projects to develop and demonstrate the necessary technologies. Next month, however, these projects will be an important part of the Power-to-Ammonia Conference, in Rotterdam on May 18-19.
This article is the first in a series of three that aims to introduce each business case.
This week, an important new voice joined the chorus of support for renewable ammonia and its potential use as an energy vector - the International Energy Agency (IEA).
In his article, Producing industrial hydrogen from renewable energy, Cédric Philibert, Senior Energy Analyst at the IEA, identifies a major problem with the hydrogen economy: hydrogen is currently made from fossil fuels. But his argument for producing hydrogen from renewable energy leads almost inevitably to ammonia: "In some not-too-distant future, ammonia could be used on its own as a carbon-free fuel or as an energy carrier to store and transport energy conveniently."
"IFC was ready to make it official. The company was at 100 percent operation. It was time for the ribbon cutting."
Well, yes and no.
Yes, Iowa Fertilizer Company held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate its greenfield at Wever. No, Wever is hardly 100% complete: the ammonia plant is operational, but the downstream plants may be months away.
Agrium announced yesterday that it has "successfully commissioned" its new urea plant at Borger, TX, "with its first run of urea production." The plant had been mechanically complete at the end of 2016.
There will be many ways to make ammonia in the future and, regardless of breakthroughs in chemical catalysts and engineering design, genetically modified organisms will play an increasingly important role.
At this week's American Chemical Society meeting, Daniel Nocera from Harvard University introduced his new ammonia synthesis technology. It builds on his "artificial leaf" that produces and stores hydrogen using power from sunlight. Nocera's latest innovation is to couple this system with a microbe that naturally contains nitrogenase, the enzyme that fixes atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia.
The end result - a robust population of nitrogen fertilizer-emitting microbes - can be delivered to the soil simply by watering the plants.
The Lithuanian investors behind a proposed ammonia plant in Louisiana have put the project "on hold indefinitely," according to local economic development officials quoted in the local press this week.
The Institute for Sustainable Process Technology has just published a feasibility study that represents a major step toward commercializing renewable ammonia.
It examines the "value chains and business cases to produce CO2-free ammonia," analysing the potential for commercial deployment at three companies with existing sites in The Netherlands: Nuon at Eemshaven, Stedin at Goeree-Overflakkee, and OCI Nitrogen at Geleen. The project is called Power to Ammonia.
The team behind it is an industrial powerhouse with serious intentions, and this feasibility study is the first part of their plan: next come the pilot plants and demonstrations. As OCI Nitrogen explains, "there are still many hurdles to be overcome. By setting up pilots for this new technology, we can identify these and find ways to solve them."
Dyno Nobel's new plant at Waggaman, LA, is producing ammonia above its daily rated capacity. Conversely, total production in 2017 is expected to be closer to 80% of annual capacity, because it is likely to be taken offstream regularly this year while it ramps up.
This article discusses the early performance of the Waggaman ammonia plant, and the cost overruns it saw during construction.
EuroChem's CEO confirmed in the Russian press yesterday that the company still intends to build its massive greenfield nitrogen plant in Louisiana. This article introduces some of the changing market conditions that will impact, for better or for worse, EuroChem's final investment decision.
2016 was a transformative year for the North American ammonia industry but, in 2017, the bigger impact will be on the urea industry.
Here's an update on four urea expansions expected on-stream this year and next, which will add almost two million tons of new urea capacity. In the process, they'll reduce the amount of ammonia that's available for sale by more than one million tons.
And, as a bonus, I have news on an embattled "clean coal" project that, in what might be a last gasp attempt at a viable business model, could potentially add another 1.5 million tons of urea in Texas.
Most of the ammonia energy projects I write about are in the research and development phase but, as I've said before, technology transfer from the academic lab to commercial deployment is moving swiftly - especially in Japan.
Last week, Nikkei Asian Review published two articles outlining plans by major engineering and power firms to build utility-scale demonstrations using ammonia as a fuel for electricity generation. Both projects aim to reduce the carbon intensity of the Japanese electrical grid, incrementally but significantly, by displacing a portion of the fossil fuels with ammonia. The first project will generate power using an ammonia-coal mix, while the second will combine ammonia with natural gas.
Developers around the world are looking at using ammonia as a form of energy storage, essentially turning an ammonia storage tank into a very large chemical battery.
In the UK, Siemens is building an "all electric ammonia synthesis and energy storage system." In the Netherlands, Nuon is studying the feasibility of using Power-to-Ammonia "to convert high amounts of excess renewable power into ammonia, store it and burn it when renewable power supply is insufficient."
While results from Siemens could be available in 2018, it might be 2021 before we see results from Nuon, whose "demonstration facility is planned to be completed in five years." But, while we wait for these real-world industrial data, the academic literature has just been updated with a significant new study on the design and performance of a grid-scale ammonia energy storage system.