# An Ammonia Economy for Energy Transport and Storage

Gold Member
With a new fuel cell to make ammonia from nitrogen and water (producing oxygen as a side product), Australian researchers are hoping to develop an efficient carbon-free way to store and transport energy from sources like solar panels and wind generators.

Ammonia's:
energy density by volume is nearly double that of liquid hydrogen—its primary competitor as a green alternative fuel—and it is easier to ship and distribute.

Longish Science mag news article here.

Mentor
Ugh. This article looks written by The Onion. Basically everything that is typically wrong with such ideas/articles is included.

Gold Member
What specifically would that (they) be?
Calling names without articulating a reason?

One of my goals posting stories like this is to promote intelligent discussion not name calling.

Homework Helper
Gold Member
What specifically would that (they) be?
Trivializing the thermodynamics, "Oh breaking the triple bond of N2 is just a 'small detail'." That's one that caught my eye on the first read; don't know that there's any real reason to go through it a second time. It smacks of "pot shards."

Mentor
I was without a keyboard when I first saw this....
What specifically would that (they) be?
In no particular order:
1. Breathless enthusiasm for a product that doesn't exist and has no market, with not a hint of thought to its viability (Cost? Output? Lifespan? Maintenance? Safety?, etc.).

2. Ammonia is not a [primary] fuel source, so this has nothing to do with clean energy.

3. Mutually exclusive goals (energy storage and ammonia production).

4. Mis-characterizes the device (not a "fuel cell"). I clicked on the link mostly because I was confused by the thesis sentence paraphrased in the OP.

5. Meaningless stat touting the solar power potential of a country that is 77% powered by COAL!

5a. Touting a "fuel" that is really storage of solar power as if we already had solar power to spare to store it.

This is probably a puff piece solicited by the owners to drum-up investment. See also: Bloom Box and the 60 Minutes debacle. Was this actually published in "Science"?(!)
One of my goals posting stories like this is to promote intelligent discussion....
In order to promote intelligent/quality discussion, the articles linked should have quality and the OP should start the discussion with [intelligent] analysis of the topic.

Last edited:
anorlunda, davenn, Astronuc and 2 others
Homework Helper
Gold Member
Whatever did happen with that?

Mentor
Whatever did happen with that?
Nothing.

Actually, it looks like they are looking to go public now. There's a problem with going public though: you have to disclose your financial information.

Gold Member
Trivializing the thermodynamics, "Oh breaking the triple bond of N2 is just a 'small detail'."
Well, since it seems to work in the older Haber-Bosch reactors as well as the newer "fuel cells". what is the relevance of this?

It smacks of "pot shards."
Name calling.

Breathless enthusiasm for a product that doesn't exist and has no market, with not a hint of thought to its viability (Cost? Output? Lifespan? Maintenance? Safety?, etc.).
Really?
No market for cleaner energy?

Ammonia is not a [primary] fuel source.
Not sure what this means.
Is ammonia not usable as a fuel?
Or only indirectly? Maybe like gasoline in a generator to make electrical energy?

Mutually exclusive goals (energy storage and ammonia production).
This is a problem how? Would not ammonia store the energy?

Meaningless stat touting the solar power potential of a country that is 77% powered by COAL!
How is this meaningless when much of the world would like to see less release of climate changing chemicals?
Actually knocking down that 77% would be considered a plus by many people of the more green perspective.

This is probably a puff piece solicited by the owners to drum-up investment.
Another form of name calling not supported by anything.

Mentor
Really?
No market for cleaner energy [generation]?
This product has *nothing whatsoever* to do with cleaner energy generation. That is a typical part of the scam that people *must* learn to recognize. I've edited my previous post to say that more explicitly.
Not sure what this means.
Is ammonia not usable as a fuel?
Or only indirectly? Maybe like gasoline in a generator to make electrical energy?
A primary energy source is one that is collected (or somewhat refined) as usable energy. Sunlight, oil (gasoline), natural gas, and coal are primary energy sources. Secondary energy sources are manufactured using other energy sources. Batteries, hydrogen (when not reformed from natural gas), pumped hydro, this, or other storage is secondary energy. A secondary energy source does not help deal with global warming because it depends entirely on the primary energy source for the global warming reduction (caveat: in some cases a small improvement is possible if the efficiency of the total cycle is better, as gas engines in cars tend to waste energy at idle). In this case, pretty much anything you do with this product in Australia (E.G., use it to power cars would be my first guess) will increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Note: this isn't like in the USA where you can say due to our fractions of clean energy from nuclear power and a lesser extent (in order), hydro, wind and solar that electric cars are a net GHG reducer. With 77% coal in their grid, it must be a net increaser of GHG emissions. It's like you're burning coal in your car.
This is a problem how? Would not ammonia store the energy?
How is this meaningless when much of the world would like to see less release of climate changing chemicals?
Actually knocking down that 77% would be considered a plus by many people of the more green perspective.
It is meaningless because it:
1. Has nothing to do with the topic being discussed.
2. Is an attempt to invent a benefit (carbon reduction) for a product that has no demonstrated benefit of its own.
3. Is a fantasy number that doesn't actually mean anything. Nobody is going to cover the entire land are of Australia with solar panels and even if they did, the use of installed power output is a misleading basis for comparison (over-stating the energy output by about a factor of 5).
Another form of name calling not supported by anything.
I'm trying to find a rational explanation for such a terrible article. You could try providing *some* analysis of it, of your own.

Last edited:
davenn and Ygggdrasil
Gold Member
2021 Award
A lot of the issues with the potential for a future "hydrogen economy" that was touted in the early 2000s applies to the idea of these ammonia fuel cells. See https://www.technologyreview.com/s/402584/hype-about-hydrogen/ for a nice discussion about some of the issues with the idea of a hydrogen economy. A few additional thoughts:

1. As others have discussed, ammonia is not a primary energy source. The article discusses using solar energy to produce ammonia. So, the question is, is ammonia generation the most efficient use of that solar energy? In the US and many other countries, one would have greater environmental and health benefits from using solar energy to displace coal-fired power plants, than say, to generate ammonia to displace gasoline in vehicles.

2. Intermittency is a major issue with renewable energy sources like wind and solar, so storing excess energy as ammonia during off peak hours so that it can be burned later could have benefits. However, there are many other ideas and technologies for storage, and it's not clear how ammonia-based technologies would compare. It's certainly worth continuing research into the technology, but it is by no means clear that the technology will beat out some of the alternatives.

3. Similarly, it's not clear that ammonia-power vehicles would be superior to electric vehicles. Given the existing infrastructure for delivering electricity, there would have to be significant benefits from ammonia fueled vehicles to beat out EV technology. EV technology would likely be more efficient than ammonia fuels as well since you skip the step of converting electricity to ammonia and then to hydrogen as proposed in the Science News piece.

The technology does seem to provide a nice alternative to the Haber-Bosch process in a carbon-free future, however.

Last edited:
russ_watters
Gold Member
This response has been bothering me.

It seems to me like a backhanded way to imply some kind of fraudulent operation in order to impugn the ideas in the article rather than actually dealing with the issues or making sense.
Nowhere does the article (that you imply you have read) say anything like selling ammonia twice.
It might be a good idea to really read things before making emotional and unfounded claims about them.

Rather than talking about selling ammonia twice, the article discusses its use as a commodity that can be put to alternative purposes.
An example of this is:
The simplest option, Dolan says, is to use the green ammonia as fertilizer, like today's ammonia but without the carbon penalty. Beyond that, ammonia could be converted into electricity in a power plant customized to burn ammonia, or in a traditional fuel cell, as the South Australia plant plans to do.
Clearly, this is not selling it twice.
It is a clear discussion of ammonia as a commodity (like petroleum, for example which is used as a either a way to transport energy or a material in chemical synthesis).
This is a clear distortion of what the article says.

It is surprising that someone who seems to pride himself on on giving financial and monetary advise to others is claiming something being used as a commodity is being sold twice.

Algr
Mentor
This response has been bothering me.

It seems to me like a backhanded way to imply some kind of fraudulent operation in order to impugn the ideas in the article rather than actually dealing with the issues or making sense.
I'm not someone who does backhanded implication, so let me be clear: the claims in the article are basically fraudulent. The article does not make sense. More specifically on the idea of selling it twice: what they are really doing is proposing an idea that they can't do and then providing a back-up plan. It isn't literally selling it twice (which is physically impossible), it is figuratively selling it twice: to trick people who are thin on science to invest. It's a bait and switch. It is almost certainly a fraudulent operation like Bloom Energy.
Nowhere does the article (that you imply you have read) say anything like selling ammonia twice.
The article discusses two separate and mutually exclusive uses for the ammonia. Two totally different purposes that have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. So why are they both being discussed in the same article? Answer: when you don't have a good idea, you throw multiple ideas out there in hopes of blinding people with quantity over quality. It's a swindle.
Rather than....
Rather than breathlessly defending the article, please provide some analysis of its claims. Tell me:
1. How many kWh of electricity is used per pound of ammonia generated? Is that more efficient than current manufacture methods?
2. Does the company make an ammonia fuel cell (by the real definition, not the wrong definition they used)? If so, what is its efficiency? What does it cost?

Rather than attacking me, defend the claims you've made by posting the link!

davenn
@russ_watters the article might be a bit overenthusiastic about the whole 'ammonia economy', but is there really a reason to lambaste it so? Or to attack the OP for posting trash?

The way I read it, it makes some uncontroversial claims:
- here's a new fuel cell (RFC is still an FC) in development, that generates ammonia without using fossil fuels in the process itself
- having green storage for green energy allows for green energy economy
- clean way to store energy can help solve two of the issues solar currently has: intermittency and exportability, making it more economically viable

The point is not that Australia should immediately switch all ammonia production to the new technology once it's developed, because clearly - and as I think you're focusing on saying - if it's less energy-efficient, and (say) all the energy comes from coal, that will result in an increase in CO2 production. I really don't think the article is suggesting such a thing.
The point is that with this technology it is feasible to have 100% green energy production/usage, where you have green energy (renewables), supplied to green storage (ammonia).

Previously, with the Haber-Bosh process this would not have been a green path, regardless how clean the first step was, since the other would still have produced CO2. Same as with the new technology and fossil fuel energy.

BillTre
Mentor
@russ_watters the article might be a bit overenthusiastic about the whole 'ammonia economy', but is there really a reason to lambaste it so?
Yes, it absolutely is. I believe that bad science in the media is very harmful. In this case the broad issue is that people have been worshiping fools-gold instead of making responsible choices about energy for decades. I believe that it is in large part the reason we have a power grid in the USA that is 35% coal instead of 0% coal.
Or to attack the OP for posting trash?
What attack? Is insisting the OP provide some analysis of his own an attack? I consider that my moderator's hat! Otherwise, the OP is just a "post-and-run". Given that the OP contains zero content that wasn't a straight paraphrase/quote from the article, my other option would have been to delete the thread and for being substandard.

I will acknowledge my first post was ill-advised -- I was headed out to dinner and didn't have time for details. I should have just waited. The OP, on the other hand, has not provided a single word of critical analysis of the article, instead attacking my tone/wording or question-talking instead of using declarative statements that can be debated.

Mentor
Separate response for the technical content:
The way I read it, it makes some uncontroversial claims:
- here's a new fuel cell (RFC is still an FC) in development, that generates ammonia without using fossil fuels in the process itself

[snip]
Previously, with the Haber-Bosh process this would not have been a green path, regardless how clean the first step was, since the other would still have produced CO2.
Since that is not what the term "fuel cell" means, I consider that to be a red flag that something is very wrong with what the article is trying to convince me of - that someone is trying to trick me instead of explain the technical merits. However, it is the unstated part of the technical point that is what is actually problematic: that fossil fuels are integral to the traditional process for making ammonia. They aren't. <<<----- That's a trick from me, but for a purpose. It's flipping the tables on the misleading statement from the article. Untangle it and you get a clear answer to the problem with this "uncontroversial claim". I'm doing this for illustrative purposes and to force critical thought.
- having green storage for green energy allows for green energy economy
Yes, that's uncontroversial -- though not terribly useful/profound of a statement.....although if I want to be critical of the wording, it implies that only intermittent sources like solar and wind can be considered "green", another major wrong of standard "green energy" advocacy.
- clean way to store energy can help solve two of the issues solar currently has: intermittency and exportability, making it more economically viable
The conclusion for this isn't correct, though again it is the "conventional wisdom" for use of intermittent "green energy". Storing and exporting green energy makes it substantially more expensive than just using it as electricity. There is simply no way around that and it is a permanent, inherent barrier to economic viability of high fraction intermittent energy grids.
The point is not that Australia should immediately switch all ammonia production to the new technology once it's developed, because clearly - and as I think you're focusing on saying - if it's less energy-efficient, and (say) all the energy comes from coal, that will result in an increase in CO2 production. I really don't think the article is suggesting such a thing.
The article does not even mention that problem, so we're left to assume it isn't a problem. *I* know it is a problem and maybe you did as well before you read the article, but what about a person who read the article who *didn't* know it was a problem?
The point is that with this technology it is feasible to have 100% green energy production/usage, where you have green energy (renewables), supplied to green storage (ammonia).
I disagree. But what does the word "feasible" mean to you? Perhaps it doesn't mean the same thing to each of us....

Beyond that, since that statement omits the gigantic problem in the previous quote, it is like opening the front door of a house that hasn't been built yet. It's irresponsible of the article writer to ignore that.

I strongly disagree with your positive view of the article, but in any case, I thank you for providing technical content for discussion.

Last edited:
Mentor
I had been hoping the thread would just die, but since it hasn't, I'll respond to this:
A lot of the issues with the potential for a future "hydrogen economy" that was touted in the early 2000s applies to the idea of these ammonia fuel cells. See https://www.technologyreview.com/s/402584/hype-about-hydrogen/ for a nice discussion about some of the issues with the idea of a hydrogen economy.
This is a great article, with discussion of most of the technical problems. Since you already summarized them, I won't repeat them, but I have another takeaway from the article:

The article is more than *fourteen* year old! Often when an article on an emerging technology is so old, that makes it woefully obsolete. But in this case, that just makes it prescient.

The "hydrogen economy" hype of 14 years ago got a fair amount of discussion on PF at the time. As the article says, it was heavily promoted as part of national energy policy. It has largely dissipated since then in government, the media and on PF, this thread notwithstanding. The summarized points are most of the reason why: they are bigger and more inherent(unsolvable) problems than advocates want to admit.

It's worth looking at what has and hasn't changed since then though (from the article):
For all the buzz about future highways filled with hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars, the technological-and environmental-high ground will belong to gasoline-electric hybrids for decades to come.[from the subtitle]
Correct.
General Motors is spending more than a quarter of its research budget on fuel cell vehicles and Larry Burns, GM’s vice president for R&D and planning, said in February that the company will have a commercially viable fuel cell vehicle by 2010.
A quarter of its R&D budget? That's huge! And how did that work out? No, GM did not produce a fuel cell vehicle in 2010. So where are they today?
https://www.triplepundit.com/2017/1...gen-fuel-cell-ev-gamble-pay-off-help-us-army/
It says GM has spent $2.5 billion overall. And for now, it wants to use them for energy storage for the military. It's already done for spacecraft, so why not? The issues are similar (lack of infrastructure so you have to bring everything with you and cost is no object). It might work for that application. Here's some on their hydrogen fuel cell plans: https://www.triplepundit.com/2017/10/hydrogen-fuel-cell-secret-behind-gms-big-ev-announcement/ That article, to its credit, points out the critical problem the OP's article ignores. How can it not, otherwise people would be left scratching their heads as to why a technology GM first demonstrated in 1966(!) hasn't hit the road yet! The current plan is mixed-together with their plan to release 20 new electric vehicles in the next 5 years. Next: Yet for all this hype, hydrogen cars are likely to remain inferior to the best gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius in virtually every respect-cost, range, annual fueling bill, convenience, safety-through at least 2030. The Prius will even have lower overall emissions of many pollutants than cars running on the hydrogen that is likely to be available at fueling stations for the foreseeable future. Correct. And a premature push toward hydrogen cars would undermine efforts to reduce the heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions that cause global climate change.... “Exaggerated claims have damaged the credibility of alternate transportation fuels, and have retarded acceptance, especially by large commercial purchasers.” Yes, that's my primary complaint about this undue hype. That$2.5 billion just from GM would have gotten them halfway to a nuclear power plant (which could have been built in 14 years). If people really care about global warming, pushing us off-track like this is harmful.
While vehicles running on natural gas-derived hydrogen won’t provide significant greenhouse gas reductions compared to the best hybrids running on gasoline, a switchover to natural gas can greatly reduce the emissions from electricity generating plants.
This switchover is happening. The US had about 50% of its electrical production from coal when this article was written. Today it is 35%. The bulk of that is from switching to natural gas.

14 years from now I predict we could have a similar look-back on this ammonia technology.