Ammonia-derived hydrogen fuel road-tested in a world's first

Ammonia-derived hydrogen fuel road-tested in a world's first
A Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle, ready to be fueled with CSIRO-produced hydrogen
A Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle, ready to be fueled with CSIRO-produced hydrogen
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A Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle, ready to be fueled with CSIRO-produced hydrogen
A Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle, ready to be fueled with CSIRO-produced hydrogen
Researchers in the CSIRO hydrogen lab
Researchers in the CSIRO hydrogen lab

Hydrogen may be the zero-emission fuel of the future, but transport and storage has always been a head-scratcher. Highly flammable and difficult to ship due to its low density, the logistical issues have always stood in the way of progress, until now. Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has road-tested its ammonia to hydrogen technology for hydrogen fuel-cells in two purpose-built hydrogen-cell cars.

The CSIRO team at the Pullenvale Technology Hub in Brisbane, Queensland, developed a metallic membrane that separates hydrogen from ammonia, while at the same time ensuring the hydrogen is of an ultra-high purity by blocking other gases. Effectively, the process is a reversal of the Haber-Bosch process, used to transform hydrogen into ammonia. In this instance, the CSIRO team takes nitrogen (N) out of the air and makes ammonia (NH3). The idea is that the resulting ammonia would then be shipped to the refueling depots where the hydrogen is extracted via the membrane in a fairly low-energy process.

The technology has huge potential for the export market as ammonia stores almost twice as much energy as liquid hydrogen, while being far easier and safer to ship. Though hydrogen cars could potentially enter the Australian market in as little as two years, Asia is where the team – and Australia's resources industry – is looking just now.

This is the very first time hydrogen cell cars have been fueled with hydrogen derived from ammonia and CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall was one of the first to take a test-ride. The team used a Toyota Mirai and a Hyundai Nexo, and both companies have made considerable investments of time and money in the future of fuel-cell cars.

"This is a watershed moment for energy, and we look forward to applying CSIRO innovation to enable this exciting renewably-sourced fuel and energy storage medium a smoother path to market," says Dr Marshall. "I'm delighted to see strong collaboration and the application of CSIRO know-how to what is a key part of the overall energy mix."

CSIRO plans to scale-up the technology and deploy it in a number of larger-scale demonstrations both in Australia and overseas.

Source: CSIRO

Jim B
If you've got ammonia, why bother cracking it back into hydrogen when the ammonia can just be burned in an internal combustion engine?
But the real problem with hydrogen/ammonia is its cost.
In May 2017 hydrogen cost $419/MWh vs $49.51/MWh for gasoline. And that was with production from cheap natural gas, not expensive (due to being highly inefficient) electrolysis.
"Comparison of conventional vs. modular hydrogen refueling stations, and on-site production vs. delivery", Sandia National Labs 2017 -
One scale-able way to produce hydrogen cost competitively with gasoline would be to use a high temperature molten salt nuclear reactor as a heat source for thermochemical production:
Ammonia in high concentrations with air causes blindness and respiratory collapse. Given that vehicle accidents happen in their thousands they would need to find some way to securely transport it in every vehicle.
Terence Hawkes
I am not sure I am in love with the idea of more tanker cars full of ammonia rolling around the country. I’d rather transport hydrogen
The hurdle for hydrogen is that it takes more energy to make than it yields. It is generally more efficient to use electricity stored in a battery than to make electricity in a fuel cell, from hydrogen that required huge amounts of energy to create. The fact that it is first made into ammonia, as a means of safer transport, doesn't alter that fact.
@highland boy The amonia would not be in cars. It is converted at the pump to hydrogen and them the hydrogen is pumped into the cars.
Ammonia safe to ship in automotive-fuel quantities? Toxic, corrosive, flammable. A quick search shows lots of incidents (including also cases where ammonia stored for refrigeration or fertilizer escaped containment with untoward results).
Why can't we just make H2 onsite wherever it's needed?
I think it is long past due that car companies need to understand hydrogen is a dead end! Electric has many significant advantages and hydrogen has many significant disadvantages! What is not clear really?
Douglas Bennett Rogers
Ammonia transport is about as common as gasoline. It will hydrate and dilute quickly, if spilled. Hydrogen is mainly a way of displacing nuclear power, such as into a vehicle or nuclear free zone.
@Jim B Hydrogen is not that expensive, and also it depends on the method of use. How on Earth are you deriving a MWh cost for gasoline? These look like made-up figures. You use MWh figures for large-scale electricity production. And you don't use gasoline for large-scale electricity production. So that does not look right.
What you might use is natural gas for large-scale electricity production; in which case you use a gas turbine or CCGT. In this case, you can use hydrogen in the place of natural gas (the 400MW Magnum plant in Holland is being converted to hydrogen) - but in this case the disparity between the prices would not be so much.
This is because the cost of hydrogen via SMR is about 20% more than the cost of natural gas.
Now, the other option to produce hydrogen is via electrolysis. Prices have dropped hugely in the last 10 years, primarily because the (renewable) electricity used to power the electrolyser has reduced in price so much. In todays energy system, there is also a lot of curtailed energy that would otherwise be lost. This 'negative cost' electricity will increase as the grid uses more RES - but even without this curtailment solar is expected to reduce to 1.4c/kWh in many regions by 2022. This is will then be lower cost than natural gas, by quite a margin, even at 4000 hours a year.
Then - the issue that detractors continually round on which is completely unfounded: the efficiency of electrolysers. Thyssenkrupp have recently developed a modular electrolyser (scalable up to the 100s of MW) that is both low-cost and high efficiency (82%). This is the same as PEM electrolysis, but it is lower cost. So there are no problems now with electrolysis, and we will start to see this happen. Many countries have extensive plans to replace SMR hydrogen and then eventually natural gas with hydrogen. This trend will increase exponentially in time.
DOE national labs are conducting trials for hydrogen production via nuclear, considering a large percentage of wind on the grid. Using this wind-nuclear-hydrogen system, they are able to derive a market price for hydrogen of $1.75/kg. Considering that hydrogen in a fuel cell vehicle is better value than gasoline at $6/kg (in the US), this is a very workable system. $1.75/kg also narrowly undercuts natural gas in some areas, considering the cost structure to both domestic (fracked) gas in the US or imported gas in the EU.
As the CEO of Hyundai has stated (and they produce both hydrogen and battery-electric cars), the cost of a FCEV will be competitive with conventional cars at a production rate of 100,000 vehicles. This is not that much in the grand scheme of things, and they are confident this will be reached in the 2020s.
It is also much safer than natural gas or gasoline as it doesn't pool or become confined in places where it could be a hazard. It is the lightest element on earth and rises much faster than helium. The French have a fire engine truck fuelled by hydrogen to illustrate its safety. This argument is simply wheeled out by those with fossil fuel interests at every available opportunity. Truly insiduous.
Its time to recognise the urgency inherent to the decarbonisation debate, and look at this technology for what it is: the only means of curbing fossil fuel use.
Eric Blenheim
Surely, water-powered cars that crack water to produce hydrogen have been invented for at least 2 decades already now, but big motor companies have refused to use the technology for obvious reasons.
The ammonia to hydrogen technology looks to me like an effort to cover that up and invent a much more costly and money-generating patentable technology. A mechanic in India runs his motorcycle on acetylene gas by adding calcium carbide to water at 1or 2 pence a litre cost.
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