A Canadian technology company says it has developed equipment that will produce zero-emissions green ammonia from renewable hydrogen at a far cheaper price than highly polluting grey ammonia.
About 235 million tonnes of ammonia (NH3) are produced globally every year, mainly for fertiliser, almost all of which is produced by combining grey hydrogen — derived from natural gas or coal with carbon emissions of nine to 18 tonnes for every tonne of H2 — with nitrogen from the air in a century-old process called Haber-Bosch.
Haber-Bosch is extremely energy-intensive — requiring high temperatures of 400-500°C and pressures above 100 bar — and is usually powered by burning fossil fuels. This process alone is said to be responsible for 1% of the world’s carbon emissions each year — and that’s not including the CO2 emitted from grey hydrogen production.
And with about half of the world’s food production relying on ammonia fertiliser, decarbonising the production of the chemical is of vital importance — not to mention the fact that green NH3 is being touted as a potential carbon-free fuel for shipping and even power production.
This is where Toronto-based FuelPositive comes in.
It says it can produce green ammonia from water, air and electricity at a cheaper price than the grey ammonia on sale today — and do so at almost any location on Earth.
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FuelPositive will combine electrolysers (which split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen) with a proprietary reactor that combines nitrogen from the air with H2 using “much lower temperatures and much lower pressure” than Haber-Bosch, resulting in 40% lower costs.
And because this modular “hydrogen ammonia synthesiser” system will be sold inside plug-and-play shipping-container-sized boxes, they can be installed anywhere that ammonia is required — eliminating transport costs of NH3, which can account for 50% of the cost of grey ammonia.
Using a case study of a 1,800-acre farm in Manitoba, Canada, FuelPositive says it can provide the required ammonia for about C$560 ($443) per tonne, compared to an average cost in 2021 of C$900 — a 37.7% discount. This production cost is based on a power price of C$45/MWh using Manitoba’s 99.8% hydro-powered electricity grid.
FuelPositive expects future production efficiencies to bring the operating cost down to under C$500 per tonne, adding that further price reductions could come from carbon offsets, as each tonne of green NH3 replaces four tonnes of CO2.
The FuelPositive system would also provide farmers with independence from “the wildly fluctuating supply chain that exists today for grey anhydrous ammonia”, the company said, pointing to the fact that the cost of NH3 in Manitoba doubled from C$600 per tonne to C$1,200 in a six-month period this year.
FuelPositive chief executive Ian Clifford says the patent on its ammonia synthesiser is still pending, so he can’t reveal too much detail about how it works, only to say that it uses a multiple cascading reactor system.
If the electricity used for the system is renewable, the entire process will be emission-free, with the only output being cold liquid ammonia — which farmers worldwide typically use to grow grains and pulses — he tells Recharge.
“Considering that corn and wheat and a lot of pulses are responsible for feeding most of the planet, it’s a huge market, and it is typically fossil fuel that’s utilised for that. So we expect that our initial demonstrations will be targeting farmers who have that kind of a mix,” he says, adding that most of these farmers will already store ammonia on their farms.
“One of the great things about farming is there’s typically a lot of real estate involved, so if you wanted to set up your own solar or wind or micro-hydro [power plant], you can do that and just plug the system in.
“And if you’re a farmer in Manitoba, for example, 99.8% of the electricity in Manitoba is hydroelectric. So you can plug directly into the grid in Manitoba and produce carbon-free ammonia for your operation.”
One electrolysis technology FuelPositive is evaluating right now are anion-exchange membrane (AEM) electrolysers produced by Italian manufacturer Enapter, which do not require the purified H2O normally required for electrolysis — instead, simple tap water can be used. And that electrolyser could even be modified to use seawater, Clifford adds.
A further bonus is that the grain-drying process — which is usually powered by propane or natural gas — can instead be fuelled by burning ammonia, further reducing costs and CO2 emissions (although combusting NH3 would release a fair amount of nitrous oxide, itself a potent greenhouse gas).
“This is a huge, huge consumer of energy and not a lot of people are aware of it,” Clifford explains.
FuelPositive built its first full-size prototype system in June, and is due to construct a second and third prototype by the end of the year, using a batch-style approach to manufacturing.The first full pilot system will be ready to deploy next summer, with serial manufacturing expected to start in 2023.
The FuelPositive technology — if it lives up to the promises — has the potential to revolutionise the global ammonia industry.
Only this morning [Thursday], German think-tank Agora Energiewende released a hydrogen report that said it would be cheaper for European companies to import green ammonia from the likes of Argentina, South Africa and Australia than produce it themselves — but that report assumed the use of the more-expensive Haber-Bosch process.
Chief operating officer Nelson Leite is already making comparisons to the disruption that Elon Musk’s Tesla has brought to the automobile sector.
“We have set an aggressive timeline. We are inspired, in part, by Tesla’s outstanding success with its approach to manufacturing and product development. With a product not quite as complex to manufacture or as regulated as an electric car, FuelPositive fully intends to follow Tesla’s lead and set a new standard for our industry,” he says.