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Fertilizer makers turn attention to ammonia as a fuel

Interest in ammonia is a subset of the interest in hydrogen.
The search for cleaner fuel has led many to look at ammonia as more than just fertilizer, but it remains unclear whether farmers should be worried about what this might mean for them.

WESTERN PRODUCER — Should farmers be concerned that the companies that produce the fertilizer they buy are becoming interested in using their specialized knowledge and capabilities to make ammonia for fuel?

In a search for ever-more climate friendly fuel, the spotlight is focused on ammonia, especially as a potential fuel for ships and other heavy transport.

The interest in ammonia is a subset of the interest in hydrogen, which produces no carbon dioxide when burned or put through a fuel cell to generate electricity.

You could look at ammonia, which is one molecule of nitrogen and three molecules of hydrogen, as a great “carrier” of hydrogen.

Ammonia can be turned into a liquid at a more reasonable temperature than hydrogen — at -33.6 C compared to -252.8 C for hydrogen. Liquid ammonia has more energy per litre than liquid hydrogen.

Fertilizer companies have decades of experience producing ammonia and have the infrastructure to move and store it.

Nutrien, the Saskatoon-based fertilizer company, announced May 18 plans to build the world’s largest clean ammonia production facility for agriculture, industrial and emerging energy markets.

The emphasis on “clean” is important.

Traditionally, nitrogen fertilizer makers have used natural gas as a feedstock, using the Haber Bosch process to create hydrogen and ultimately ammonia. The process is energy intensive and produces a lot of carbon dioxide as a byproduct and is thus labelled “grey” ammonia.

But Nutrien and others have in recent years started to capture the CO2 and sequester it underground. Overall, less greenhouse gas is released into the atmosphere, leading to a product labelled as “blue” ammonia.

Already, Nutrien’s plant at Redwater, Alta., uses some of its CO2 to make granular urea and most of the rest goes into the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line, a pipeline transporting CO2 from major emitters to oil fields where it is pumped underground for enhanced oil recovery.

Now it is considering a US$2 billion clean ammonia plant at Geismar, Louisiana, on the U.S. coast in the Gulf of Mexico. The company already has an ammonia plant there that uses carbon capture and sequestration.

The new facility would be much larger, employing a slightly different process, auto thermal reforming technology, that generates less CO2 than a conventional plant using steam methane reforming.

It would produce up to 1.2 million tonnes of clean ammonia and capture at least 90 percent of CO2 emissions, selling it to a partner for enhanced oil recovery.

Nutrien is working with Mitsubishi Corp. to ship up to 40 percent of the ammonia to the Asian fuel market.

Nutrien also is working with ship owner EXMAR to develop and build ammonia-powered vessels. Many other companies are also working on ammonia-powered engines.

CF Industries, the world’s largest ammonia producer, has announced a similar Gulf coast blue ammonia project, working with Mitsui Company. Much of the product would also go to Asia.

The Nutrien and CF Industries facilities will open in 2027 if all goes according to plan.

CF Industries is also investing in zero carbon, or green, ammonia production, using renewable electricity and electrolysis to generate the hydrogen needed to make the ammonia.

Meanwhile, Yara plans to convert its ammonia plant at Heroya, Norway, to use hydroelectricity and electrolysis. It also is in a partnership to build a network of ammonia bunker terminals to fuel the expected stable of new ammonia-powered ships.

It is not just fertilizer companies that are high on ammonia and hydrogen. The website of the Ammonia Energy Association ( lists dozens of projects around the world, advanced by multinationals, energy companies, governments and even new start-up companies.

All this is happening while natural gas prices have soared, contributing to the huge run up in the cost of nitrogen fertilizer.

The prices of other nutrients have also soared, in part because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leading many to worry about the knock-on effects on global food prices.

Could soaring farm costs and the food crisis be made even worse by an overenthusiasm for a transition to clean-burning ammonia fuel, starving the farm fertilizer market of an essential nutrient?

Or could the huge global investment into blue and green ammonia create economies of scale, drive costs down and fund research, ultimately leading to cheaper ammonia for all uses, including fertilizer?

Could this ultimately free the nitrogen fertilizer business from the ups and downs of the petroleum sector? I don’t know. Lowering costs will be a challenge and proponents must also address the potential for ammonia to have its own greenhouse gas problem in the form of nitrous oxide.

But the move to ammonia appears to be global. For example, India is betting heavily on this latter path.

Its government spends more than $14 billion a year on fertilizer subsidies and believes its resources would be better spent on fostering the production of green ammonia made from renewable energy.

Its goal is to make the country a global leader in the technology and as a global supplier.