China and Australia collaborate on ammonia as a clean transport fuel

By Trevor Brown on October 24, 2017

The University of Western Australia (UWA) has entered the increasingly competitive field of ammonia energy research in Australia, announcing a collaborative agreement to develop “the world’s first practical ammonia-powered vehicle” as well as an “ammonia-based hydrogen production plant.”

These goals are supported by funding from the R&D arm of Shenhua Group, formerly a coal company but now “China’s largest hydrogen producer with a production capacity to power 40 million fuel cell passenger cars.”

Under the agreement, the UWA Centre for Energy, led by internationally renowned energy expert Professor Dongke Zhang, will receive $1.8 million in research funding.

Professor Zhang said the successful completion of the project was likely to yield the world’s first practical ammonia-powered vehicle and ammonia-based hydrogen production plant, placing China and Australia in the leading pack of the global ‘hydrogen economy’ race.
UWA press release: UWA $1.8 million deal with China to research ammonia as clean fuel, 10/18/2017

We’ve written extensively about other Australian projects, including technologies for ammonia-based hydrogen refueling stations and renewable ammonia production, to enable its use as a carbon-free fuel from well-to-wheels. Whereas most of those look toward the Japanese electrical grid as a future consumer of ammonia energy exports, this new project aims at an even bigger customer: the Chinese vehicle fleet.

UWA’s funding will be provided by the National Institute of Clean and Low Carbon Energy (NICE), which was established in 2009 as the research and development arm of the state-owned Shenhua Group. Shenhua, a Fortune Global 500 company with annual revenues of nearly $40 billion, is the largest coal-producing company in China and is deeply involved in its national energy transition.

NICE is focused on making Shenhua’s businesses more competitive through innovation, while simultaneously delivering transformational technologies in support of Shenhua’s drive to transform itself into a world-class clean energy company.

NICE has grown to over 350 employees, with locations in Beijing, China and California, United States. NICE technologists are currently working in strategic areas, including clean coal conversion and utilization, coal-derived materials, coal-to-chemical catalysis, hydrogen energy and applications, distributed energy systems, and advanced water treatment processes.
Air Products press release: Air Products and NICE Sign MOU to Work Jointly on Hydrogen Fueling Projects in China, 10/13/2016

We have previously reported on dual-fueled ammonia vehicles under development in Fujian, and ammonia-fueled commuter buses have been tested in Jinan. This is not the only ammonia fuel project with roots in China, therefore, but it may have the most ambitious goals:

Dr Wayne Xu, chief technology officer of the National Institute of Clean and Low Carbon Energy (NICE), said he was confident that the collaboration would lead to the greatest innovation in mass transport since Rudolph Diesel’s invention of compression ignition engine.

“The success of this research will deliver an immediate benefit in combating the urban air pollution challenge in China and many other rapidly rising economies.”
UWA press release: UWA $1.8 million deal with China to research ammonia as clean fuel, 10/18/2017

The ambition that the Chinese backers have for this project may be lofty, but it reflects their nation’s ambition to be a global leader in clean energy technology development. And China’s ambition, backed by real investment, is increasingly challenging any prevailing narrative of Western superiority:

While China has seized onto climate change as the issue on which it could be both a technological and moral leader, the United States has taken a great leap back.
Foreign Policy, The Convenient Disappearance of Climate Change Denial in China, May/June 2017

China’s pragmatic approach to clean energy investments, financing industries of the future instead of the past, is perfectly matched by Australia’s economic development, resource abundance, and technological know-how and innovation.

We need to acknowledge that exports of coal for power generation, that is thermal coal, will decline significantly over the next few decades … However, we are in position to replace the thermal coal exports with liquid sunlight.

… The advantages of both synthetic natural gas and ammonia is that they can be transported to our North Asian trade partners in the huge LNG ships currently leaving Gladstone and the North West Shelf, and that they are much easier to transport than hydrogen.

These technologies combined with strong investment in renewable energy offer Australia the opportunity to remain a global energy export superpower in a renewable energy world.
Pat Conroy, Labor party member for Shortland and shadow assistant minister for climate change and energy and shadow assistant minister for infrastructure, The Guardian: It’s our choice: renewable energy superpower or Asian Pacific rust belt, 10/05/2017

In practical terms, according to correspondence from Professor Zhang, the UWA-NICE collaboration will look at two alternative approaches to ammonia engine development.

First, it will study ammonia as a direct fuel to power an internal combustion engine. The ammonia would be partially dissociated (“cracked”), creating some hydrogen in the fuel input to act as a combustion promoter and improving ammonia’s ignition and combustion performance. “In effect, we are burning a mixture of NH3/H2/N2 with air in an engine.”

Second, the project will look at ammonia as a hydrogen carrier, completely cracked into hydrogen to power a fuel cell.

The project’s ultimate goal is to “provide a basis for the design and construction of a demonstration vehicle,” based on these ammonia engines.