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  • Hydrogen
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Ammonia Must Overcome Challenges to Reach Its Full Decarbonization Potential

Peter Marrin
May 05, 2023

GHI Blog

Most people only recognize ammonia in its highly diluted liquefied form as a household cleaner. But the colorless, pungent gas has been used commercially for more than 100 years, mostly as a precursor for nitrogen fertilizer. Global ammonia production has grown by almost 4,000% since 1950, during which time the world’s population more than tripled as increased fertilizer use reduced food scarcity. Ammonia is now one of the most widely produced synthetic chemicals worldwide, with more than 80% of it going to make fertilizer.

However, ammonia production faces challenges. While ammonia itself is carbon free, its traditional production pathways rely almost exclusively on fossil fuel-based hydrogen. Ammonia production consumes around 1.8% of global energy output each year and accounts for around 1.8% of global CO2 emissions. In addition, the combustion of ammonia in engines releases nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

Green ammonia production—which uses renewable power to make green hydrogen, separate nitrogen from the air, and combine the two through the Haber-Bosch process—eliminates all carbon from the process and is set to become the preferred route in areas such as Europe, where the European Commission’s REPowerEU plan sets specific green ammonia production and import targets.

In addition to its potential to decarbonize the existing fertilizer market, ammonia could help other emissions-heavy sectors. Each molecule of ammonia (NH3) contains one nitrogen atom and three hydrogen atoms, a composition ideal for carrying hydrogen. Further, ammonia decomposition (the conversion of hydrogen from cracked ammonia) is becoming increasingly compact and accessible thanks to new technologies.

Decarbonizing Industry, Shipping, and Power Generation

Ammonia’s history in agriculture has established a robust global market and a framework for the next great decarbonization solution. Ammonia’s production, transport, and usage have the technological maturity, existing infrastructure, and public familiarity to expand into new industries.

  • In late March 2023, Air Liquide announced plans to build an industrial-scale ammonia cracking pilot plant in Antwerp, Belgium. The plant, which combines a new process with Air Liquide’s proprietary technologies, should be operational in 2024. It was funded by the Flemish government, through its agency for innovation and entrepreneurship.
  • New York-based Amogy continues to roll out new prototypes to demonstrate the diversity of its high efficiency ammonia-to-power cracking technology. Since its founding in 2021, the startup has scaled its power pack technology from 5 kW to fly a drone in 2021, to 100 kW to power a tractor in 2022, to 300 kW to power a semitruck in early 2023, all while raising more than $200 million in funding. Amogy is planning to notch its power pack up to 1 MW to power a tugboat later in 2023 before scaling up to 10+ MW to propel transoceanic vessels by 2025.
  • In 2022, Mainspring Energy announced that its new Mainspring Linear Generator can directly run on either 100% hydrogen or 100% ammonia fuel at high efficiencies. In addition to hydrogen and ammonia, the Mainspring product can run on biogas, renewable natural gas, and other widely available gaseous fuels, and can switch between fuels automatically with software-based controls. Mainspring claims that the scalability of the product allows for use in behind-the-meter applications as well as in large grids, microgrids, data centers, and similar operations that require constant power.

Guidehouse Insights recent report Leveraging Ammonia as a Hydrogen Carrier and Decarbonization Tool details the actions needed to unlock ammonia’s full decarbonization potential. Carbon-free ammonia can slash emissions from a wide range of industries and sectors, including the existing fertilizer market. It also shows significant promise as a transportation fuel and hydrogen carrier. But before ammonia can decarbonize any other sectors, it must first clean up its own act; therefore, new technologies must be applied to decarbonize production.