Low-carbon ammonia production gaining traction as countries aim to cut carbon footprint
Ammonia is a crucial building block for a variety of industrial processes, with the main application in fertilizers, chemicals and explosives. However, traditional or grey ammonia production is energy-intensive and relies heavily on fossil fuels, making it a significant contributor of approximately 1%-2% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Low-carbon methods are therefore gaining a lot of attention when it comes to reducing the carbon footprint in the production of ammonia.
Different “colors” of ammonia
There are various methods to produce low-carbon ammonia, and although ammonia is colorless, it is categorized based on its production process.
Green ammonia – Producing low-carbon ammonia through the use of renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, bioenergy or hydroelectric power. In this method, renewable energy is used to generate electricity, which is then used to power the Haber-Bosch process for ammonia production.
On the other hand, with biomass, such as agricultural waste or forestry residues, as a feedstock, the biomass is first converted into a syngas using gasification technology, after which the hydrogen is separated and used to produce ammonia.
Blue ammonia – Another low-carbon method is to use carbon capture and storage technology in ammonia production. This is known as blue ammonia, where the carbon dioxide produced during the ammonia production process using fossil fuels is captured and stored underground or repurposed for other applications.
Pink/yellow ammonia – In this method of ammonia production, nuclear power is used as a source of energy for the electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen gas. This method has the potential to produce large amounts of low-carbon ammonia with minimal greenhouse gas emissions.
Turquoise ammonia – Ammonia is produced using methane pyrolysis. This involves breaking down methane into hydrogen gas and solid carbon using high temperatures in the absence of oxygen. The hydrogen gas is then combined with nitrogen gas to produce ammonia.
This method is considered a low-carbon process as the carbon produced during the methane pyrolysis can be stored or utilized in other applications, such as carbon fiber production, hence reducing its carbon footprint.
Apart from conventional applications, many new ammonia applications are evolving, such as co-firing and maritime fuel.
Ammonia can also be used to store and transport renewable energy or hydrogen. Renewable electricity is used to produce hydrogen and further into ammonia, which can then be stored and transported to be used as a fuel source or to generate electricity when needed. When the ammonia is used as a fuel or to generate electricity, it is converted back into hydrogen and nitrogen gas, releasing only water and nitrogen as byproducts, making it a carbon-free method of energy storage and transportation.
India: renewable milestones for shipping, fertilizer sectors
Many countries are moving forward in adopting low-carbon ammonia to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reach their respective sustainability goals.
One such recent adaptation includes India when it released renewable milestones for the shipping and fertilizer sectors.
India approved the latest National Green Hydrogen Mission with a $2.4 billion budget in January.
The mission aims to achieve a national production target of 5 million mt/year of renewable hydrogen by 2030. The government may call for competitive bids for establishing fertilizer plants based on green hydrogen/green ammonia.
By 2034-35, the government aims to substitute all ammonia-based fertilizer imports with domestically produced green ammonia-based fertilizers. A green ammonia bunker and refueling facility will be set up at least at one port by 2025 making it available at all major ports by 2035.
China: First commercial-size dynamic green ammonia plant
On the technology side, Chinese company Mintal Hydrogen awarded Topsoe a contract to provide technology for the first commercial-size dynamic green ammonia plant in China.
The first phase will have a capacity of 1,800 mt/day, or 390,000 mt/year, with commissioning scheduled in 2025. This is the first project of its kind, meaning Topsoe’s dynamic ammonia technology will secure optimal production and adapt to the inherent fluctuations in power output from the wind turbines.
Clean power from wind turbines will be connected directly to the electrolysis unit, making it more cost-effective than if involving hydrogen storage.
Australia: Announced projects dominated by green ammonia
When looking at one of the most active and most favorable regions in low-carbon ammonia, Australia needs to be mentioned.
Its key advantages include advanced technologies, excellent wind and solar resources, a long coastline ensuring water availability, availability of critical infrastructure and a well-developed ammonia supply chain.
The projects are located along the coastlines in Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland, benefitting from the above-mentioned factors.
Low-carbon ammonia production in Australia
The split of low-carbon ammonia project announcements in Australia is currently dominated by green ammonia, constituting 93% of the announced capacity.
Australian company CWP Global is the largest operator in Australia with close to 20 million mt of low-carbon ammonia in the pipeline followed by British multinational oil and gas company BP with more than 10 million mt.
Overall, the imperative to reduce carbon emissions has driven the potential for low-carbon ammonia up the investment agenda over the last three years.
As well as ammonia’s use in fertilizer and chemicals, where it accounts for around 1%-2% of global carbon emissions annually, the potential for low-carbon ammonia in new markets such as maritime fuels or as a vector for hydrogen has generated significant project interest.
The industry needs new tools to help it navigate the changing landscape and there is a need for data and insights for low-carbon ammonia.