This week, Yara announced major progress toward producing "green ammonia" at its plant in Pilbara, Australia. Its new partner in this project is ENGIE, the global energy and services group, which last year made a major commitment to developing large-scale renewable hydrogen projects.
I first reported Yara's plans for a solar ammonia demonstration at its Pilbara plant in September 2017. This week's announcement means that the Pilbara project has moved to the next feasibility phase. However, major elements of the project have already been designed and built: during last year's scheduled turnaround for plant maintenance, the hydrogen piping tie-in was completed - meaning that the Haber-Bosch unit is ready to receive hydrogen directly, as soon as an electrolyzer has been built to supply it with renewable feedstock.
Last year, Yara Sluiskil, in the Netherlands, upgraded its existing ammonia plant by introducing a hydrogen pipeline connection, thereby reducing its reliance on fossil fuels. The pipeline was commissioned in October 2018 and now "ensures the efficient and safe transport of hydrogen," which was previously a waste-product at Dow's nearby ethylene cracker. Already, the project "delivers a CO2 saving of 10,000 tons" and a decrease in energy consumption of "0.15 petajoules (PJ) per year."
This is, perhaps, the first ammonia plant decarbonization revamp, and it shows that it is both possible and affordable to reduce emissions from existing ammonia plants today.
The newest ammonia plant on the planet has opened in Freeport, Texas.
A joint venture between Yara and BASF, this world-scale ammonia plant uses no fossil fuel feedstock. Instead, it will produce 750,000 metric tons of ammonia per year using hydrogen and nitrogen delivered directly by pipeline. The plant's hydrogen contract is structured so that the primary supply is byproduct hydrogen, rather than hydrogen produced from fossil fuels, and therefore the Freeport plant can claim that its ammonia has a significantly reduced carbon footprint.
This new ammonia plant demonstrates three truths. First, low-carbon merchant ammonia is available for purchase in industrial quantities today: this is not just technically feasible but also economically competitive. Second, carbon intensity is measured in shades of grey, not black and white. Ammonia is not necessarily carbon-free or carbon-full, but it has a carbon intensity that can quantified and, in a carbon-constrained economy, less carbon content equates to higher premium pricing. Third, the ammonia industry must improve its carbon footprinting before it can hope to be rewarded for producing green ammonia.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The US Department of Energy's Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA-E) is funding projects with a view to commercializing low- and zero-carbon ammonia synthesis technologies.
Grigorii Soloveichik, ARPA-E Program Director, described the aims and challenges of his agency's initiative and introduced the technologies currently in development in his keynote presentation at the recent NH3 Fuel Conference, in September 2016.
If you want to know whether - or when - the US will become a nitrogen exporter, read what the fertilizer company CEOs say during the latest round of quarterly earnings calls.
These guys should have formed pretty solid opinions by now about how the capacity expansions will affect long-term supply and demand, and how they're going to gain/keep market share and competitive advantage. But it can be a challenge to infer what those opinions might be.
I've summarized the pertinent parts of the debate here, with quotes from Agrium, CF Industries, KBR, LSB Industries, OCI, Potash Corp, and Yara.
SUMMARY STATUS: Operational
In April 2018, Yara announced that the Freeport ammonia plant was operational. Start-up was delayed from the original 2017 target, in part by Hurricane Harvey. Yara and BASF held a groundbreaking ceremony in July 2015, five months after the companies confirmed their investment decision and announced details of their joint venture relationship, the EPC contract award, and a 20-year feedstock supply contract.
OWNER: Yara Belle Plaine Inc (Yara International ASA)
PROJECT: Nitrogen fertilizer complex and brownfield ammonia-urea plant
SUMMARY STATUS: Operational
Built in 1992, the Saskferco project was, until 2016, the newest world-scale, natural gas-based ammonia plant in North America. It was purchased by Yara in 2008, and expanded in 2008-9. Yara considered building a new brownfield ammonia-urea plant but, in 2013, cancelled those plans because costs grew too high and it had concerns about overcapacity.
SUMMARY STATUS: Operational
US Nitrogen broke ground in February 2012, when it expected its new plant to start up in March 2014, but the project was fraught with problems. Permits were revised and reissued repeatedly, and the site had major issues with compliance, which appear to continue even today. Construction and design issues led to major delays and lawsuits. The start-up process eventually began in May 2015 but the ammonia plant didn't start up until June 2016. Within a couple months, the site was temporarily shut down under federal and state investigation of permit compliance; more emission mishaps occurred in April 2017. The company announced that the plant was fully operational in January 2017 but, since then, it's not clear whether plant has been producing much product.