Summer, 1909. The world’s population is growing and it’s hungry. A scarcity of natural fertilizers means that science alone now stands between the global masses and certain famine. At his laboratory in Karlsruhe, Germany, Industrial chemist Fritz Haber is busy demonstrating a groundbreaking process for converting atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia under immense heat and pressure. In less than five years’ time, chemical engineer Carl Bosch will demonstrate the same process at an industrial scale and, in doing so, change our world forever.
We’re not in Karlsruhe anymore
Today, the Haber-Bosch process produces upwards of 90%1 of the world’s ammonia, which, thanks to its use in synthetic fertilizers, is responsible for 50%2 of everything that appears on our plates. As if that wasn’t enough, it’s estimated that without the work of both Nobel Prize winners, approximately 3 to 3.5 billion3 of us wouldn’t be around to read this article.
So, how is it possible that what many consider to be the twentieth century’s most important technological innovation may not be as viable in the twenty-first?
Put simply, having helped feed the world for over a hundred years, the Haber-Bosch process has developed quite an appetite of its own. Today, it represents 2%4 of the world’s total energy consumption. And it’s not just what goes in that matters. Ammonia production also accounts for 1.8%5 of global carbon emissions, and demand for the chemical is growing.
Gray ammonia—meet today’s most common form of NH3
Of the 200 million tons of NH3 produced every year, the vast majority is ‘gray’ ammonia created using fossil fuels, primarily natural gases like methane. From the moment it’s drilled out of the ground to the moment it’s piped into the production plant, some of that methane escapes into the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. What arrives at the plant is used to obtain pure hydrogen via a highly energy- and carbon-intensive process known as steam methane reforming (SMR).
About 80%6 of gray ammonia produced today is used as fertilizer, but it won’t always be that way. Heavy industries like maritime view ammonia as a potential fuel source, as it contains almost twice as much energy as liquid hydrogen by weight and nine times the energy density of lithium-ion batteries. But ammonia must decarbonize if businesses hope to meet ambitious sustainability goals like the International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) targeted 70%7 reduction in emissions by 2040.
Blue ammonia—long-term solution or useful stop-gap?
Work is already underway to curb the emissions of traditional, ‘gray’ ammonia production by introducing carbon capture and sequestration systems into the process. Ammonia produced in this way is known as ‘blue ammonia’ and is capable of capturing 90%8 of CO2 from the SMR process. Captured CO2 can then be used for other industrial applications or sequestered underground.
Policy interventions like the Inflation Reduction Act9 (IRA) in the U.S., provide tax credits on clean ammonia products and are helping to make blue ammonia competitive vs. gray ammonia. Partly thanks to subsidies like this, the blue ammonia market is expected to grow at a healthy 5.2%10 CAGR until 2025 and is set to dramatically reduce ammonia-related emissions in the near- to mid-term. But, is it enough?
Green ammonia—Maritime’s carbon-free fuel of choice
While the carbon capture of blue ammonia is already helping to reduce ammonia industry emissions, it’s only taking place during the SMR process. If ammonia production is to eliminate direct emissions, we’ll need to do something about those fossil fuels. That’s where ‘green’ ammonia comes in.
Green ammonia is different. Unlike gray and blue ammonia, green ammonia doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. Instead, it uses renewable energy and hydrogen electrolysis to produce ammonia with no direct emissions. In the next ten years, green ammonia is likely to be the most dominant type of ammonia in use. There are a few hurdles to clear before then though.
Growing the green ammonia economy
Firstly, there’s the cost factor. The price of green ammonia is very high compared to gray and blue ammonia. Current rates range from $700-$1400 per ton at sites with access to renewable energy like solar or wind. The good news is this is expected to drop as infrastructure and technology advances, reaching roughly $500 per ton by 2030, and $300 per ton by 205011 . Tax credits apply here too, with the IRA awarding up to $3/kg of hydrogen produced in the U.S. based on its lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) content. Every ton of ammonia contains 177kg of hydrogen, so policy interventions like this can have a huge impact on cost. While we wait for the green ammonia economy to grow, ramping up production of blue ammonia is helping to make an impact today.
When it comes to maritime use cases, one of the most pressing challenges is creating safe and efficient bunkering for ammonia fuel. While the maritime industry is no stranger to transporting ammonia as a commodity, there are key differences when it comes to transferring it to and from vessels as fuel. That includes the quantity being transferred, the type and capacity of tanks in use, and more12 . The result is a unique set of safety issues that need to be addressed. Thankfully, progress is being made on that front too. For instance, one of our tugboat partners, Yara, is currently in the process of building an ammonia bunkering network in Scandinavia13 .
Finally, ammonia might have an image problem. In a recent survey14 , members of the public were asked what their initial thoughts were when confronted with the word ‘ammonia’. Reactions ranged from neutral responses like ‘chemical’ to more negative ones like ‘toxic’ and ‘corrosive’. When shown an infographic and explanatory text detailing what ammonia is and its potential as a carbon-free fuel, the majority of participants returned positive responses like ‘beneficial’, ‘promising’, and ‘great idea’. While this is only one survey, it highlights how education and dialogue have a key role to play in changing not only public but industry perceptions around ammonia.
We’re getting involved too!
At Amogy, we’re committed to helping grow the green ammonia economy. We’re actively educating, knowledge sharing, and collaborating with potential partners, trade associations like the Ammonia Energy Association, and ammonia producers.
Edward Cubero, Strategy and Business Development at Amogy explains: “our aim is to help develop an end-to-end, near emission-free ammonia supply chain in close collaboration with producers, transporters, storage entities, regulators, policymakers, and industry workforces.”
Imagine a world where our agricultural ammonia use had no direct emissions, and our heaviest industries ran on an emission-free energy supply chain. The future is bright, but there’s still plenty of work to be done. Just like in the summer of 1909, ammonia is poised to leave its mark on our history, and it’ll take scientific ingenuity and collaboration to make it happen.
Keep an eye on our blog for more updates and insights on how the ammonia industry is evolving.