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.
I've published recent updates on four greenfield nitrogen plants that hope to break ground in 2017, potentially adding 1.8 million tons of ammonia capacity in the US.
The project pipeline is long, however, and others are making progress too. This article provides updates on another four projects that, together, could add more than 4 million tons to North American ammonia capacity through 2022.
Over the last few weeks, I've written extensively about sustainable ammonia synthesis projects funded by the US Department of Energy (DOE). While these projects are important, the US has no monopoly on technology development. Indeed, given the current uncertainty regarding energy policy under the Trump administration, the US may be at risk of stepping away from its assumed role as an industry leader in this area.
This article introduces seven international projects, representing research coming out of eight countries spread across four continents. These projects span the breadth of next-generation ammonia synthesis research, from nanotechnology and electrocatalysis to plasmas and ionic liquids.
In recent months, research teams from both Canada and Italy have published comparative analyses of sustainable ammonia production pathways.
These projects aim to quantify the costs and benefits of combining Haber-Bosch with a renewable hydrogen feedstock. Both projects examine the carbon intensity of ammonia production but, while the Canadian study broadens its remit to a full life cycle analysis, including global warming potential, human toxicity, and abiotic depletion, the Italian study focuses primarily on energy efficiency.
Midwest Fertilizer Company continues to juggle progress and setbacks on its $3 billion greenfield nitrogen plant in Indiana, following the December 2016 termination of its EPC contract with ThyssenKrupp. In the last few weeks, we've seen updates on the EPC contract, air permits, debt financing in Pakistan, and the $1.259 billion tax-exempt bond issue in the US.
Five years after breaking ground, and almost three years behind schedule, US Nitrogen's ammonium nitrate plant in Tennessee has finally reached "full production capacity."
This project has been so fraught with problems - permitting, compliance, engineering design, construction, community acceptance, health and safety - that it wasn't always obvious whether the plant would ever be fully operational. Even now, a raft of legal challenges remain unresolved.
The US Department of Energy (DOE) is currently supporting six fundamental research projects that will develop "novel catalysts and mechanisms for nitrogen activation," which it hopes will lead to future sustainable ammonia synthesis technologies.
These projects, announced in August 2016 and administered by the Office of Basic Energy Sciences, aim "to investigate some of the outstanding scientific questions in the synthesis of ammonia (NH3) from nitrogen (N2) using processes that do not generate greenhouse gases."
I recently wrote about a vast future market for merchant ammonia: transporting carbon-free energy from Australia's deserts to Japan's electricity grid.
Now, however, it is clear that Japan could face international competition for Australia's solar-ammonia resources. Jeff Connolly, CEO of Siemens Pacific, wrote last month about his ambitions for ammonia as an energy export commodity.