NH3 Energy+ and Food Security

By Norm Olson on July 27, 2017

A guest editorial by Norm Olson, President of the NH3 Fuel Association.

In 2004, the NH3 Fuel Association began promoting NH3 as the best alternative fuel choice to replace gasoline and diesel fuel.

NH3 and hydrogen are the only two alternative fuels that can be produced from water (plus air for NH3) and/or any other source of hydrogen using all primary energy sources (e.g., wind, solar, nuclear, natural gas, biomass, hydro, etc.). This is a huge advantage, as all other alternative fuels must either be produced from biomass or from a somewhat convoluted and inefficient CO2 collection process.

In a head-to-head comparison of NH3 and hydrogen: NH3 infrastructure can be an order of magnitude lower in cost; NH3 is more energy efficient to produce than either 10 kpsi or liquid hydrogen; NH3 is more efficient in optimally-designed internal-combustion engines; and NH3 can have regulated emissions as low as those of hydrogen.

The economic, environmental, and efficiency performance of NH3 as a fuel should be enough to elevate it to a position as the leading alternative fuel candidate but there are additional benefits associated with NH3.

Click to enlarge. US Department of Energy, ARPA-E “REFUEL” program.

One of the most significant problems associated with alternative energy (especially wind and solar) is the intermittent nature of these resources. Energy storage in batteries is a good choice for short-term (<3 days) energy storage but for long-term (weeks to months) storage and especially remote/stranded renewable energy, chemical energy storage is the best option. NH3 is the most cost-effective, efficient (long-term) means of storing alternative energy, especially in the case of stranded alternative energy. The fact that NH3 is already the second most transported chemical in the world (fertilizer applications) provides an optimal situation for enabling intermittent and stranded alternative energy to provide 100% of our energy needs.

Recently, I have been using the “NH3 Energy+” title in place of “NH3 Fuel” in presentations to illustrate that the benefits of NH3 go beyond fuels and go beyond energy storage (as important as these two items are). NH3 also provides a tremendous opportunity to significantly improve world food security and enable sustainable, local food production.

Many developing countries do not have access to affordable fertilizer. Fertilizer could provide up to a 5-fold productivity increase and change the situation from sustenance farming to a money-making export enterprise. For a crop like corn, a 5-fold increase in yield would allow fertilizer to be produced using a portion of the increased corn stalks produced. Using approximately 25% of the increased corn stalks produced as feedstock for ammonia synthesis would provide enough ammonia to produce the subsequent year’s crop. The corn stalks would be converted to methane via anaerobic digestion or thermal gasification. In both cases biochar would be co-produced with the hydrogen needed to produce ammonia. Biochar is a form of fixed (i.e. non-volatile) carbon that is an essential element of healthy productive soils. The world’s best soils (the rich, black soils of the U.S. Midwest) have an organic carbon content of around 7% and it is the carbon that gives these soils their black color. The carbon acts to hold moisture and nutrients in the soil until the plants need them. The essential point is that sustainable, locally produced fertilizer will lead to vastly improved agricultural productivity and local economic development.

A second and equally important benefit of an improved agriculture system is that a robust chemical industry can be developed around plant-based chemicals. While biomass-to-fuels is only practical on a limited scale, biomass-to-chemicals requires a much smaller amount of biomass and provides a significantly higher return on investment. As an example, ethylene is the top volume organic chemical in the world. It is used to produce polyethylene which in turn can be used to produce water piping, milk containers, hard hats, automobile parts and thousands of other products. Ethylene is one of hundreds of chemicals that can be produced from biomass.

A relatively simple NH3 production facility can provide:

  1. A high-efficiency, carbon-free (carbon negative in some cases) transportation and electrical generation fuel;
  2. A cost-effective, long-term renewable storage medium and;
  3. A sustainable fertilizer enabling not only a revenue generating agricultural system but a robust chemical industry.

NH3 can lift developing countries from poverty to economic powerhouses in a sustainable, carbon-free fashion: a great way to by-pass the fossil fuel age into a renewable future.

A guest editorial by Norm Olson, President of the NH3 Fuel Association.