Canada’s Ammonia Energy Option

Opinion by Dr. Steve Wittrig and Greg Vezina.

Canada possesses vast energy resources (oil, gas, hydropower and wind) that are disadvantaged from full development by a combination of distance from markets, cost of transportation infrastructure and CO2 intensity.

One promising option to address these barriers is to develop ammonia (NH3) as a portable, storable, ultraclean fuel for regional development and export. Ammonia has many advantages as a fuel.

  • It is an easily storable liquid at moderate pressures (similar to LPG) with a boiling point of -36 C.
  • It is the second most produced chemical in the world and has very well established procedures, regulations and equipment for shipping, storage and handling even at very large scales required for fuel.
  • It is essential fertilizer for feeding the world as well as an efficient, environmentally safe refrigerant.
  • It produces only nitrogen and water when used as a fuel (no CO2, CO, smoke, soot, sulfur or nitrogen oxides).
  • With regard to fire or explosion, it is much safer than other fuels such as gasoline, LPG, natural gas and crude oil.
  • It is not a greenhouse gas and is, by definition, biodegradable.

Most of the ammonia produced today is from natural gas in very large plants.  Hydrogen from the natural gas is combined with nitrogen from the air.  Most of the CO2 in the process is produced as a pure stream and the rest can be captured with the same equipment at very low cost.  If the ammonia is produced from local gas/oil fields, this creates reservoirs for injection of the pure CO2 (either for enhanced oil recovery or permanent sequestration).

Ammonia from low cost gas fields in modern world-scale plants can manufacture zero carbon, liquid fuel for less cost than diesel fuel.  It can be used in internal combustion engines or turbines for stationary power generation or for transportation with no emissions (including no greenhouse gas emissions).

Once these ammonia plants have been established they can be designed to incorporate grid scale quantities of renewable power for additional zero carbon hydrogen and process energy.  This facility could also become a hydrogen processing facility for upgrading heavy oil.

The annual global market for diesel power generator sets is over 60 gigawatts (a little less than half of Canada’s electrical capacity).  As ammonia is proven and becomes available as a fuel, it can become a preferred alternative to diesel fuel for this application.

These ammonia powered gensets can serve as the baseload power generation in local microgrids that enable much improved utilization of renewable power (e.g., wind power) while guaranteeing reliable electricity. These applications are already developed for diesel generators.  When they are powered by ammonia, they will be operations that can be placed in urban environments and will be more applicable to use the heat from the engines for heating or absorptive air conditioning.

The development and optimization of these microgrid engines and systems can open options for efficient additions to power grids around the world with manageable project size, better utilization of local renewable power, zero emissions and combined heat and power.

The optimization of internal combustion engines for stationary power generation will provide the basis for car, truck and rail engines powered by zero carbon ammonia.

As these clean fuel markets grow, they can be supplied as premium fuels and fertilizers via pipelines (see article 1 in this series), rail, barge, truck and ship.  These routes to market are much more flexible than gas pipelines to LNG export terminals or long distance HVDC electric lines to remote power markets.  The product can be stored and shipped to the highest return markets depending on seasonality, variable demand and cost of transport options.

This general scenario represents an opportunity for Canada to produce systems and zero carbon fuels that will lead the world.

Third in a series of four articles for OLM by Greg Vezina, Chairman, Hydrofuel Inc. and current issue guest contributor Dr. Steve Wittrig, Senior Advisor, Advanced Energy Systems, Clean Air Task Force.