Over the last few years, world-scale ammonia plants have been built, restarted, and relocated across the US. The last of these mega-projects began operations at Freeport in Texas last month. No more new ammonia plants are currently under construction in the US, and the received industry wisdom is that no more will begin construction.
However, project developers and ammonia start-ups did not get this memo. With low natural gas prices persisting, they have not stopped announcing plans to build new plants. The difference is that the next tranche of new ammonia plants breaking ground will not be world-scale but regional-scale, with production capacities of perhaps only one tenth the industry standard. Despite using fossil feedstocks, these plants will set new efficiency and emissions standards for small-scale ammonia plants, and demonstrate novel business models that will profoundly alter the future industry landscape for sustainable ammonia technologies.
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.
Simplot announced yesterday that it is "beginning construction" on its ammonia brownfield in Rock Springs, WY (which means that they intend to break ground before the end of October, once they've finished preparing the site).
The new plant is significant for Simplot: the investment will be "one of the largest in company history," and it will make the company self-sufficient in ammonia ...
SUMMARY STATUS: Operational
Simplot began building its new ammonia plant, adjacent to its existing phosphate fertilizer plant, in October 2014. The project was initially scheduled to be complete in Q3 2016, but delays pushed this back. The new plant was mechanically complete in March 2017 and became fully operational in September 2017. Simplot's investment is "one of the largest in company history," and makes it self-sufficient for ammonia.
News of a new ammonia brownfield – at Simplot’s Rock Springs, WY, fertilizer plant – trickled out the other day, when they presented the project to the city council. More details to come, but air permits are in process, and construction could begin in 2015 for completion in 2016. Capacity would likely be small-scale (less than 100,000 tons per year?), upgraded to MAP, from natural gas feedstock. Read more