Green ammonia

On the high seas of the Norwegian continental shelf, cargo ships are a familiar sight. If scientists have their way, however, a new type of ship could soon appear over the horizon, powered not by a dirty pollutant but ammonia….

Of course, all knowledge is local etc etc. But this looks like something of a waste to me.

They’ve got to get the ammonia first – steam reforming of methane, or perhaps hydrogen from electrolysis driven by windmills – which has emissions. Sure carbon capture, mebbe.

But if you’re going to do that why stop with ammonia, which is highly corrosive, has to be cooled and compressed etc. Why not carry on the chemistry to a hydrocarbon? Which we know how to carry around, we’ve already a century of experience in making the engines using it efficient and so on.

Of course, again, all knowledge is local etc. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that for certain applications – maybe ships, more likely jet engines – the replacement for oil is oil. Just, we make the oil rather than drilling for it. The economic point here being that if you make hydrogen cheap enough then it works. And if you make electrolysis from solar and or wind cheap enough then it works again.

“Cheap enough” being an interesting definition in itself but still true. In fact, we already know how to make avgas and the like this way, it’s just not cheap enough yet.

The greatest benefit of this process being, obviously, that it will piss off so many greenies.

39 thoughts on “Green ammonia”

  1. So Much For Subtlety

    The chemistry in adding steam to coal and producing hydrogen gas is old and well known. In fact most people here probably live or work within walking distance of somewhere that did it over 100 years ago. Going from there to methane is almost as old and also as well known.

    People who had problems with access to world oil markets – notably Germany during the last round of unpleasantness and South Africa’s Sassol – went the next step and turned it into perfectly good petrol. In fact Germany’s first fighter jets largely flew on an artificial avgas.

    None of this is hard, complicated or needs much effort. It is just expensive, capital-intensive and more than a little dirty. Why bother?

  2. The latest solar farm in Adu Dhabi is going to be producing electricity at $0.0135/kwh which is three times lower than our best wind power and vastly better than we can do with solar in our climate. They average 8 or 9 hours sunshine every day so the only intermittency to worry about is the rather predictable day/night cycle. If we used electricity at that cost to electrolyse water to make hydrogen then combined that with C02 extracted from sea water in a Sabatier reaction to make methane we could ship that to the UK and pump it into the existing natural gas storage and transmission network where it would be used to power gas heating and also the existing gas turbine electricity generators. This would give us cheaper electricity and no need to invest in systems to capture carbon or store power to overcome the problems of intermittent renewable energy supplies.

  3. Just to be pendandary for a bit, you can’t have “high seas” and “Norwegian continental shelf”. The high seas are those parts of the ocean *outside* any country’s jurstication. A country’s continental shelf is that part of the sea/seabed within a country’s exclusive juristiction. If you’re on Norway’s continental shelf, by definition, you’re *not* on the high seas.

  4. The Meissen Bison

    I should hate to disagree with a prebendary, but that isn’t how it was taught at school when I was a nipper. The continental shelf then was a matter of topography while questions of jurisdiction were governed by international convention.

  5. ‘… powered not by a dirty pollutant but ammonia….‘

    If ammonia is not a ‘dirty pollutant’ why are businesses required to ensure it is not discharged into the environment?

    Ammonia combines with moisture in eyes and respiratory system to produce nitric acid which is corrosive. Ammonia is extremely dangerous, it is toxic and corrosive.

    The problem with environmentalists is they know no science, they have instead ideology and feelings.

  6. AndyF

    ‘… the only intermittency to worry about is the rather predictable day/night cycle.’

    Do they have no sand there? No sand storms, sand carried on the air to settle on the panels, reduce effectiveness, scratch and degrade them?

    And a good start point before doing anything is, why?

    As for the proposed complex process to get methane to ship to the UK, the UK already has loads of methane, it is available underfoot and inexpensive by fracking for it, but doing so will release monsters.

  7. @ jgh
    @ TMB
    When I was at school too, but since then they have changed international law so that all of Norway’s Continental Shelf, and a bit of the UK’s, is in Norwegian territorial waters.

  8. So Much For Subtlety

    Incidentally, if somewhat off topic, re:rewilding.

    It seems that pine martins have made it back to the Forest of Dean.[1] Maybe with some help.

    This is important because they are beautiful in and of themselves but also it seems that where we still have them, the grey squirrel can’t get a foothold. The red squirrels seem better at coping with what is likely to be predation.

    So now the FoD has been rewilded with wild boar and pine martin. J K Rowling might have decided Hermione camped there as a child but soon she may well find the experience a whole lot more exciting.

    [1] I don’t know who Dean is, he sounds like he sells mobile phones, but we ought to thank him for saving some forest

  9. As Tim says, why would you bother? I think Wärtsilä are virtue-signalling because the greenies are now attacking container shipping for frying the planet. As a fuel, ammonia is crazy from a chemical energy point of view. Only the H contributes energy to burning, and the N just sucks energy out of the reaction, in contrast to methane where the C burns as well.

    If the Telegraph employed journalists with a rounded education they could have worked this out. But of course that doesn’t support the narrative.

  10. @ SMSF
    100 years ago there were very few factories producing ammonia, Billingham, Ludwigshafen, place in France … A lot more sixty years ago but none in big cities because they were, until steam-reforming of methane replaced the coke ovens, horribly polluting. I don’t remember where those producing H2 for other uses were based but I would bet they also were few and far between for the same reason.

  11. they have changed international law so that … a bit of the UK’s is in Norwegian territorial waters.

    A million years ago Harold Wilson gifted part of the British sea bed to Norway because … um, spinelessness?

  12. I believe that the world’s container ship traffic pumps out more carbo that the world’s cars. Easily solved with a few filters I should have thought. No need for cockrot about Ammonia.

  13. Ammonia as combustible fuel has about 40% of the energy of bunker crude. Meaning cargo capacity will be dropped substantially to make way for more fuel. Or range will be severely curtailed.

    Can it work? Yes. Would anyone in shipping want to use it? No.

    Without even getting into the safety and handling issues.

  14. I have thought for some time that the most cost effective route to decarbonisation is to use nuclear power stations to provide a very high capacity ( > 100 GW) carbon free grid where fuel costs are minimal – the old it’s too cheap to meter concept. The point being that if you can achieve that (and we know its possible from an engineering perspective because France proved the concept) then electricity can displace conventional hydrocarbons simply by market forces – and manufacturing hydrocarbons is one of our options.

    The alternative of renewables, batteries, hydrogen, energy efficiency is too complicated and probably not actually practical, let alone economic.

  15. So Much For Subtlety

    john77 July 13, 2020 at 9:30 am – “100 years ago there were very few factories producing ammonia, Billingham, Ludwigshafen, place in France …”

    I was refe4rring to town gas. Not ammonia.

  16. @ SMFS
    Sorry – it was a thread on ammonia so my tunnel vision hit on that.
    As far as I recall every town had large gasometers to hold the town gas that was piped thence to the cookers and gas fires in the town. I do *not* recall any town having a gasification plant to convert coal into town gas – those were restricted to the coalfields. However references to “the Gasworks” imply that before I was born some towns did have their own gasification plant so that they could play off one coal-producer against another to get value for money until Attlee nationalised the coalmines and created a monopoly.

  17. @ john 77 & SMFs
    As far as I remember from my distant childhood, town gas was generated locally using coke rather than raw coal.

  18. @ asiaseen
    Maybe where you lived, not where I did but there was a “Gasworks area” in the town to which we moved when I was six so that suggests that it had previously.

  19. Gas produced locally, hence the horrendous clean up costs of the old gasworks brown field sites. I don’t think there was a national network of gas pipes before North Sea gas made one necessary.

  20. Wasn’t there a horrendous explosion in an Ammonia plant a few years back that destroyed a town in Texas…it was making it for ground injection as a fertiliser…?

    Nasty noxious stuff. Hated using it in the lab.

    Before they invented CFC’s it was common for household and commercial refrigerators to use ammonia as the coolant gas, and there were frequent poisonings where people died in their sleep from a fridge leak.

  21. @ Tim the Coder
    Not all that noxious.
    Childhood memory – ‘O’ level chemistry class, asked to identify a substance by smell and something else: smell seemed vaguely familiar, so I took a sniff from the .880 Ammonia bottle to refresh my memory: teacher noticed – horrified and lab assistant took me away, sat me down, glass of distilled water, supervised till end of lesson – I thought it tactful *not* to tell them that it wasn’t the first time I’d sniffed 880 Ammonia to check out a smell …

  22. @john77
    That was ammonia water, a solution. Much safer, and yes I remember it’s ‘pungent’ smell too 🙂
    As with H2S and NaCN, the time to move away very rapidly (if you still can) is when you stop smelling it: because your nasal nerves have already started to die and the rest soon follows.

    Back to OT, seems that prohibition of grass isn’t enough, they want to add baccy to the gun-crazed gang business case. Next it’ll be booze, chocolate and steak.

  23. @ Tim the Coder
    Was, fortunately, never exposed to NaCN.
    Too clumsy to do Chemistry so I switched to the Maths VI when I was 15 as I reckoned Maths was the only subject where I could be sure of passing Oxford entrance and hence never did ‘A’ level Chemistry was I really wanted to do – much more interesting than Maths and Physics

  24. “Wasn’t there a horrendous explosion in an Ammonia plant a few years back that destroyed a town in Texas”
    Well.. it was a fertiliser plant.. If you understand the reactions, it’s easy to make BoomStuff. Or if you feck up the input ratio’s….

    I’ve been looking at the reactions they could possibly use, and be fully “clean”, but you quickly end up with a very finicky combustion setup using either platinum or (verrah poisonous..) chromiumIII as a catalyst to make life “easier”.
    Given a ship, and Norway’s form with stirling engines as propulsion ( some of their hunter subs have stirlings for their propulsion..) , you can see how they could go about it. reliable cooling on a ship, so heat-exchange engines work really well on them.. It’s certainly not impossible.

    Except for the low heat of combustion requiring substantial tanks and fuel pipes made of ???. Since the stuff will eat through metal, I think the biggest challenge they’d have is in storing it ( safely) , not burning it.

    So as the Mythbusters would say: Plausible. Any practicality would be in the actual eating of the cake..

  25. “Attlee nationalised the coalmines and created a monopoly.”

    WKPD: “In 1948, Clement Attlee’s Labour government reshaped the gas industry, bringing in the Gas Act 1948. The act (on the vesting date of 1 April 1949) nationalised the gas industry in the United Kingdom and 1,062 privately owned and municipal gas companies were merged into twelve area gas boards, each a separate body with its own management structure.

    The Gas Act 1965 shifted the balance of power to the centre: it put the Gas Council on the same footing as the area boards, with the powers to borrow up to £900 million, to manufacture or acquire gas and to supply gas in bulk to any area board. In May 1968, the Gas Council moved to large new offices at 59 Bryanston Street, Marble Arch, London.”

    Since there was no pipeline network there couldn’t be even the pretence of a technical reason to do any of this: just another imposed move of the control of industry from the localities to London.

  26. @Grikath

    Minor point of pendantry incoming. Norway’s form with stirling engines as propulsion ( some of their hunter subs have stirlings for their propulsion..)

    All Norway’s current submarines are bought from Germany:

    It’s actually Sweden (who make their own subs) you’re thinking of:

    (This was a fact I was either unaware of or had seen before and forgotten, so thanks!)

  27. @ dearieme
    I was actually referring to the NCB monopoly in the supply of coal and coke. Your comment is, nevertheless, useful.

  28. So Much For Subtlety

    Pretty sure that coal gas was made locally, and from coal. Hence, as someone said, the clean up costs.

    Also one of the better Pogues’ songs. Which I assume is a cover. Can’t be bothered to check:

    I met my love by the gas works wall
    Dreamed a dream by the old canal
    I kissed my girl by the factory wall
    Dirty old town
    Dirty old town

    Clouds are drifting across the moon
    Cats are prowling on their beat
    Spring’s a girl for on the streets at night
    Dirty old town
    Dirty old town

    I heard a siren from the docks
    Saw a train set the night on fire
    I smelled the spring on the smoky wind
    Dirty old town
    Dirty old town

    Seamus, or Shane as he calls himself for some reason, comes from London. So where did he have in mind?

  29. So Much For Subtlety

    john77 July 13, 2020 at 9:40 pm – “Your comment is, nevertheless, useful.”

    Is it an interesting example of Britain’s Two Cultures that a Scientist might find that praise, but a PPE student might think that was a perfect put down?

  30. “John B”
    “….Do they have no sand there? No sand storms, sand carried on the air to settle on the panels, reduce effectiveness, scratch and degrade them?….”

    Probably a little but that’s irrelevant as it is already factored into that cost. As manual labour rate there is $1/hour, construction and maintenance is cheap.

    As to why, well given the government is insisting on going carbon neutral in the next 30 years or so I would much prefer them to go about it a a method that is cheap and efficient rather than hideously expensive and risky.


    The above references are two that come mind re synfuel production from CO2 and H2.

  32. ‘If scientists have their way, however, a new type of ship could soon appear over the horizon, powered not by a dirty pollutant but ammonia.’

    The renders the whole article useless.

    As well as, ‘Many see ammonia’s potential to carry hydrogen and serve as a green fuel, helping them decarbonise operations and face up to the challenges of climate change.’

    Scientists investigate. They are not personally attached to their findings. ‘If scientists have their way’ and ‘many see ammonia’s potential’ is journalist talk. It’s not science talk.

    Chowdhury tries to influence. He isn’t trying to inform.

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