The now fashionable hydrogen as a fuel has an unexpected alternative – ammonia, which is used as a fertilizer
Why are engineers claiming ammonia’s ability to “make the humanity’s dream of carbon-free energy come true,” how is it better than other energy sources, and how does all this relate to global warming on the planet?
A wave of reports on projects for the production of ammonia from natural gas, as well as the supply of this substance to countries developing engines for marine and road transport, swept through the pages of the world press. These motors, according to experts from the American portal Oil Price, can “greatly reduce consumer interest in electric vehicles and reorient buyers to cars with ammonia internal combustion engines.” Plants for the production of ammonia fuel are beginning to be built in Saudi Arabia, Australia, Canada, Norway.
How two chemists solved a global problem
Ammonia has been used by mankind for a long time – but for completely different purposes. About a century ago, the world faced an impending food crisis. The rapid population growth has put farmers in the face of the need not only to increase the volume of products grown, but also to achieve a faster ripening of the crop. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil did not have time to multiply in the required amount to solve the two named tasks, and the stocks of guano and natural nitrates in South America, which farmers used as fertilizers, were decreasing.
It was then that German chemists Fritz Haber and Karl Bosch developed a method for synthesizing ammonia by combining hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen under pressure. The Haber-Bosch method (for the discovery of which these chemists received the Nobel Prize) is still considered “the solution to one of the most global problems facing humanity”. Since it is the product obtained as a result of the above reaction that allows the world agriculture to have that huge amount of synthesized fertilizers that nature cannot create.
Now, according to experts, ammonia can play a role in preventing another global problem caused by humanity – the excessive emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And today many scientists believe that ammonia (NH3) is capable of stopping this catastrophe. More precisely, the transfer of energy “to ammonia rails.”
Firstly, because it can become an ideal storage for hydrogen, which at the right time and in the right place will be used in fuel cells and turbines without emissions of harmful gases. Secondly, ammonia can become an environmentally friendly fuel for power plants and vehicles, sea and river vessels in the first place.
Benefits of ammonia fuel
A report by Danish ammonia technology firm Haldor Topsoe highlighted a number of advantages ammonia fuels have over other fuels. The energy density of ammonia is 12.7 MJ / l, which is much higher even than that of liquid hydrogen (8.5 MJ / l). Liquid hydrogen must be stored at minus 253 ° C, while ammonia requires only minus 33 ° C. In addition, thanks to a century of experience in the use of ammonia in agriculture, there is already an extensive infrastructure for the production of this product. About 180 million metric tons are produced annually in the world, and 120 ports are equipped with ammonia terminals.
The initial focus of the clean energy movement was on lithium, thanks to the strong focus on the electric vehicle markets. But it is unable to provide enough electricity to support the full transition of heavier industries to clean and sustainable energy sources. Ammonia, on the other hand, has nine times the energy density of lithium-ion batteries. It has a specific energy 1.8 times that of hydrogen.
Ammonia is less flammable than gasoline and kerosene, easier to transport and more economical. And you can fill the tanks of ships or cars with it very quickly, in contrast to charging the batteries of electric cars.
Tony Will, CEO of CF Industries, the world’s largest ammonia producer, sees a fundamental shift in the prospects for the industry. “Up to this point, we have been selling the nitrogen component of the molecule,” he says. “Now the market is interested in the hydrogen part of the molecule, and it has great prospects.”
Industry analysts at Fior Markets predict that the global ammonia market is expected to continue to grow and reach $ 81.42 billion by 2025. Shipowners and industry analysts agree that ammonia can play a critical role in decarbonizing cargo ships, leading to a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 from 2008 levels.
First ammonia fuel plants
And the industry has already begun to show its first results. For example, Saudi Arabia intends to build a plant that will produce more than 1 million tons of ammonia per year. The solar panels and wind generators included in the complex will have to provide the production of 4 GW of electricity necessary for the operation of electrolysis plants. The project is large – a standard ammonia plant currently produces about half a million tons of product per year.
Air Products will spend an additional $ 2 billion to create a new distribution scheme. It will supply ammonia worldwide to dedicated storage facilities built at the bases for hydrogen-powered buses and trucks. When Air Products CEO Seifi Ghasemi presented the project, he told analysts that he saw it as a feasibility study for an entirely new industry. “This is the first and largest and most innovative project to make the humanity’s dream of carbon-free energy a reality,” he said.
Norwegian fertilizer giant Yara has said it is considering installing electrolysers at its ammonia plant in Sluiskil, the Netherlands. This will enable it to obtain the amount of hydrogen sufficient to produce 75 thousand tons of ammonia per year. Yara wants to sell ammonia as fuel for ships.
The aforementioned CF Industries launches the first major green ammonia project in the United States. “The demand for ammonia is potentially huge. They are already looking for it as fuel for sea and river vessels. And if we add to this the transport workers, whose funds will be equipped with hydrogen engines, then the demand can be safely multiplied by two, ”- says the head of CF Tony Will.
Optimists and skeptics
Not everyone is so optimistic. For example, Andrea Valentini, director of the Asia-Pacific and Middle East division of US fuel infrastructure company Argus Consulting Services, points to a number of obstacles the industry must address if it wants to use green ammonia as an alternative fuel. One problem is that there are no ammonia-powered marine engines yet.
The developers, however, promise a finished product as early as 2024. As part of one such initiative, Finnish engine manufacturer Wartsila will begin testing a four-stroke ammonia-fueled marine engine this year. And one of the world’s largest engine developers, MAN Energy Solutions, is improving a two-stroke ammonia engine. MAN is working with the Korean shipbuilding company Samsung Heavy Industries to build the first ammonia-fueled oil tanker . The competition is the Norwegian energy company Equinor (formerly Statoil). She, however, is taking a slightly different path, deciding not to build a new tanker, but to modify the Viking Energy at her disposal, “forcing” it to work on ammonia. And also by 2024.
“Our initiative will open up a whole new zero-emission shipping option,” said Henrietta Undram, Equinor’s vice president of renewable and low-carbon technologies. “We’re not just solving one small problem for one ship. This is part of a bigger picture. This will be the starting point for creating a carbon-free fuel market. ”
Still, industry experts say renewing the global marine fleet will be extremely costly. Achieving the goal of reducing carbon emissions by 50% by 2050 will require up to $ 1.4 trillion. This is stated in a report on the results of a study conducted in 2020 by a group of marine experts from the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) and scientists from the University Maritime Advisory Services (UMAS).
According to the already mentioned Valentini, “there are many other unknowns in the equation with ammonia fuel.” “We have a very large number of green hydrogen projects in different parts of the world, especially in Australia and Saudi Arabia. And we see that the volumes that these countries are aiming to produce will require a significant increase in the cost and efficiency of electrolysers, says Valentini. “Firms hope to tap into a market that doesn’t exist yet. So for now, on paper, this looks like a risky proposition. Hopefully, when there is a presentation of a particular engine, the fog will clear. “
Where companies see high profitability of “green” ammonia, Valentini sees an increase in costs that need to be compensated somehow and someone. This someone is usually the end consumer. Will he agree to pay more? Under the condition of organizing a powerful and long-term campaign under the slogans of “preserving the planet” and “preventing a global environmental catastrophe” – it is quite possible, some experts say.
Experts from Chemical & Engineering News called ammonia the fuel of the future, which could be “an ideal commodity for the hydrogen economy.” Everything seems to look solid, convincing and promising for humanity. Here are just the word “commodity” in the above formulation strains and makes you recall the dictum of the English publicist Thomas Joseph Dunning, quoted by Karl Marx: “With 300% profit, there is no crime that capital would not risk it.”