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Ammonia As a Global Renewable Solution

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

When I ask my colleagues what's the first thing that comes to mind when I say 'ammonia', they respond with various different answers. Powder, bad odor, cleaning products, and, of course, urine. When we hear the word ammonia, people don't generally resonate the chemical compound with green solution. However, within the past few years, technological advancements are making its stride in the industry indicating the emergence of ammonia as scalable green energy for the future. So, it begs the question, how significant is ammonia as an alternative solution for renewable energy?

Ammonia is a colorless gas that is composed of nitrogen and hydrogen. It is highly soluble in water and has a pungent odor that most people find displeasing. Ammonia has a boiling point of -33.34 degrees Celsius and can be easily liquified which is the part that is attractive for storage and transportation purposes. The unique properties of ammonia is why it is considered to be versatile as a renewable solution.

Before talking about the potential of ammonia as renewable solutions, it should be noted that, currently, ammonia production presents itself with a few environmental challenges. In 2022, the world produced around 180-190 million tonnes of ammonia. Most ammonia production, around 80% to be more exact, is currently used as fertilizer in the agricultural industry. As much as the discovery of the chemical reaction of nitrogen and hydrogen to produce ammonia solved the world food crisis in an ever growing population back in 1909, the process of producing ammonia based fertilizer is also one of the world killers responsible for decrease in biodiversity, widespread air quality problems, and about 1 to 2 percent of global carbon emissions.

Even with the current problems of ammonia, the reason why ammonia is being re-emphasized is because it has the potential to impact different sectors in storage, transportation, and fuel as renewable solutions.

Ammonia holds great potential as a medium for energy storage. Excess electricity generated from renewable sources can be used to produce ammonia via electrolysis. The stored ammonia can be converted back into electricity or used as a fuel providing a more efficient supply of energy. Ammonia also possesses excellent hydrogen storage and transport capabilities. It can be used as a carrier for hydrogen which can be extracted and used as clean fuel enabling the possibility of zero emission transportation. In a more tricky process, ammonia can also be used as an alternative to traditional fossil fuels. Through the process of combustion, ammonia can be used as a carbon-free fuel producing only water and nitrogen as byproducts. In the era of EV vehicles and biofuel solutions for aviation, ammonia can be another alternative to power cars, trucks, buses, and even ships.

1. Ammonia as a medium to store renewable energy

2. Ammonia to transport renewable energy

3. Ammonia as fuel by direct combustion in an engine or through chemical reaction to power motor

You might wonder at this point, when ammonia production itself emits greenhouse gas, how is it possible that we achieve carbon zero (emphasis on 'zero'!) through ammonia? Well, the truth is we are still some way away, but not as far as you think, to effectively use ammonia as a decarbonization solution and it all comes down to the way it is produced. There are three types of ammonia production. 'Brown ammonia production' which is ammonia made from fossil fuel mostly to produce hydrogen and not the most attractive production process, 'Blue ammonia production' which follows the same process as brown ammonia production but with carbon capture and storage technology, and lastly and most interestingly, 'Green ammonia production' which is a process using sustainable electricity, water, and air. In order to reach our environmental goals, it seems like blue and green ammonia production seems to be the answer. However, in order to achieve carbon zero(!), only green ammonia production can fullfill that objective. Blue ammonia production process, in the end, is capable of capturing and storing up to 60-85% carbon. Once again emphasizing carbon 'zero', blue ammonia production, although significant, can only be a benchwarmer solution until the real MVP, green ammonia production, comes into play. In green ammonia production, hydrogen is produced through electrolysis of water and nitrogen is obtained directly from air, but the main challenge of this process is of course the cost of production. If we are able to cut down the cost through government policies, subsidiaries, and/or other avenues to encourage economies of scale, using ammonia as a real renewable solution for decarbonization will not only be a pipedream.

Image source: World Economic Forum

As we unjustly summarize the significant potential of ammonia as a renewable solution, we must also look into the several challenges that must be addressed to fully realize its potential. There needs to be further development of robust infrastructures by establishing blue and green ammonia production plants and retrofitting existing facilities to reduce carbon emissions. Moreover, as a highly toxic gas, it should require proper safety measures of handling and transporting the chemicals through stringent regulations and protocols.

Due to its existing century old vast ammonia supply chain infrastructure and the research of ammonia as a renewable solution by startups and well-established companies around the world, the future of ammonia as a contributor to decarbonization is looking brighter as we witness a massive wave of collective effort put into place.

In Europe, companies like Yara and Cepsa are delivering ammonia to other European companies to help realize the green maritime corridor between Algeciras and Rotterdam. In New Zealand, Meridian Energy has partnered up with Woodside Energy to establish a renewable energy facility feeding a green ammonia facility producing up to 550,000 tons per year. Engie, the French energy company, with a consortium including Posco, Samsung and PTTEP alongside several other companies, is planning to build an integrated renewable ammonia plant to export tons of green fuel to South Korea to support decarbonizing the Korean steel industry. Skansi Offshore, a shipping company located in the Faroe Islands is in collaboration with Amogy, an ammonia power solutions company to see possibilities of retrofitting ammonia-to-power systems on Skansi's vessels.

Image source: Yara

For now, we will see how the industry reacts to ammonia's potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change as we see an exponential growth in the number of ammonia-based renewable solution projects. The key is consistency. Realizing the full potential of ammonia requires continuous research, technological advancements, as well as supportive national and international policies. If these efforts were to be continued, it doesn't seem so far-fetched to think ammonia can play a vital role in achieving a sustainable and low-carbon society.

If you believe ammonia is relevant to your decarbonization strategies and activities consider taking a look at our Watch List of global solution providers here.


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