FuelPositive promises green ammonia at 60% the cost of today's gray
Canada's FuelPositive says each of its modular, container-sized ammonia production units will deliver 100 tonnes of green ammonia a year at costs around US$444/tonne, compared to average gray (fossil-fuel-based) ammonia prices that have averaged around $714.50/tonne this year.
Ammonia prices in North America have been going bananas in 2021, on the back of hurricane-related supply disruptions, COVID-19 and a price hike on natural gas, which is the key – and heavily polluting – input fuel with which nearly all gray ammonia is currently produced. Earlier this month, prices were averaging over $1,250 per tonne, up from closer to $550 a tonne in 2018, and rising faster than any time in recorded history.
Bad news for farmers, obviously, who need it as a fertilizer – but the high prices could help spur innovation in green ammonia production, and that might be good news for those who seek to use ammonia as a green fuel for hard-to-decarbonize sectors like aviation and long-haul shipping.
FuelPositive is a little cagey on exactly how its system works – it's got patents pending – but here's what we do know. It's built into a shipping container, and thus extremely easy to transport. It accepts water, air and electricity as inputs – preferably clean electricity from on-site solar or wind.
The system contains an electrolyzer, which extracts hydrogen from the water, and an extractor that separates pure nitrogen from the air, and these go into what the company calls "a novel, patent-pending ammonia synthesis reactor system" originally developed by Dr. Ibraham Dincer at the University of Ontario. The only output is anhydrous ammonia, in a form suitable for agricultural, industrial or energy storage uses.
Each unit, says FuelPositive, is good for up to 300 kg (661 lb), or 500 L (132 gal) of ammonia a day. That's about 100 metric tonnes per year; about enough, the company claims, for an 1,800-acre (728-ha) farm. Larger operations can add extra modules, while smaller ones can siphon the extra ammonia off to power suitably modified vehicles, grain dryers and generators, or for use as a refrigerant.
The $444/tonne price estimate is based on the assumption that the owner buys green electricity straight from the grid at around 3.6 cents per kilowatt hour; anyone with their own clean power generation capacity can run that straight into the box and presumably cut costs further. FuelPositive says these estimates are for the company's first-gen production machine, and that efficiency improvements could bring the price per tonne down under $400 in subsequent generations of the device.
The company is pitching its device as an opportunity to gain "independence from the wildly fluctuating supply chain that exists today for gray anhydrous ammonia," and as a simple way to completely eliminate transport costs and emissions from the ammonia equation.
But this is also clearly a chance for individual farmers to reduce their carbon footprint, and that could prove advantageous as governments start to gradually tighten the screws on carbon-emitting activities in the race towards net zero carbon by 2050.
Mind you, this is all theory and promises at this stage, from a company looking for investments, and it should be treated as such. FuelPositive's first full-sized prototype is still under construction, and the company doesn't expect it'll be able to start verifying the purity of its ammonia output or corroborating the above OPEX estimates with evidence until March 2022. That's when it plans to start taking pre-orders, with serial manufacturing not slated to begin until 2023.
Still, if it works as promised and the numbers are accurate, this company could have a pretty compelling offer to make to farmers, depending on what the up-front equipment costs look like.
In a broader sense, it'll be interesting to see if this technology can scale up as a green production method that's cost-competitive with the methane-based Haber-Bosch process that currently accounts for about 2 percent of worldwide fossil fuel energy use, and generates 2.6 tons of CO2 for every ton of ammonia, adding up to more than 420 million tons annually. And that's not counting the huge carbon cost of the methane-based hydrogen it uses, or the more insidious methane emissions from natural gas extraction; methane warms the atmosphere some 86 times more effectively than CO2 over the course of 20 years (although it only hangs around for about a dozen years instead of thousands).
One gets the sense that if FuelPositive saw this technology as a way to make industrial-scale green ammonia for the price of gray, they'd have pitched it as such. But there are no plans for some giant ammonia plant; the company sees on-site ammonia production as a more interesting proposition, so large-scale end users like ammonia truck fueling depots and ammonia cargo ship operators will have the option to swap transport, logistics and carbon tax costs for electricity, space and storage costs.
Time will tell how well this idea stacks up, but even if it mainly ends up working for individual farms, it could still make an impressive contribution to decarbonization.