National Renewable Ammonia Architecture Update

In this post, Neal Rauhauser introduces a new expanded paper on ammonia from stranded wind that his group has developed.

The first National Renewable Ammonia Architecture was published, over Nate's objection to the timing, on Christmas Eve of 2008. A mere 2,400 words and with many gaps, it still rules Googlespace, page rank #1 for anyone searching for "renewable ammonia".

We’ve had a bit of time since then and a good bit of luck on new data sources so we’re back with an expanded, 6,500 word analysis. The new version can be found at National Renewable Ammonia Architecture Spring 2009.

The first piece was not as complete as we would have liked. We think this update will have filled in most, but not all, of the pieces an educated layman would need to begin to grasp what a might look like, and there are plenty of hooks to allow those with more detail knowledge of the fertilizer sector to begin considering how such a plan might be executed.

We’ve found and presented good information on pre-Haber Bosch nitrogen mining, primarily to put the nitrogen to protein mass balance problem in perspective for those who are interested in organic or non-chemical methods.

The U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Census Bureau proved to have treasure troves of information on production volumes, suppliers, and other market forces.

We brought our carbon dioxide numbers in line with the method everyone else uses but we’re still uncertain – is global ammonia production 70% coal/30% gas, or are the numbers reverse? We’ve dug and dug and still don’t have a solid reference for this seemingly simple point. We did map all of the U.S. plants that are either in production or recently mothballed and in North America only three of twenty-nine facilities are using carbon heavy coal or petroleum coke.

Speculatively, we explored what it would take to fully free the nitrogen fertilizer industry from fossil fuel inputs, what would happen if solid state ammonia synthesis were perfected, and we hinted at an area that needs much investigation. If ammonia were entirely free of fossil fuel what could be done to accelerate carbon sequestration by fertilizing non-crop producing biomes? Much work has been done with hydrogen fuel cells and the problem has always been the source of the hydrogen more than the technology itself. An expansion of the national ammonia pipeline network to deliver renewable produced ammonia to stations that would catalytically crack it producing the needed hydrogen is another potentially attractive avenue.

We’d hoped to answer questions about the concept of a National Renewable Ammonia Architecture. That we did, but in reviewing the finished work we see much room for better analysis – every section cries for a paper all its own, and integrating them tightly would yield a book on the topic. A less tight integration in the form of inviting essays from subject matter experts in the various disciplines is probably a good intermediate step, but we’re uncertain as to who the players are for such an objective.

Always in the background is the work Alan Drake has done with the Millennium Institute regarding the validation of a national rail electrification plan. Similar efforts encompassing renewable ammonia, ammonia as a fuel, and ammonia enhanced carbon sequestration would seem to be equally valuable exercise.

We hope you’ll take the time to read the entire plan, such as it is, and provide us with feedback.

A very informative and nicely done piece.

One highly desirable feature of the general scheme of producing ammonia from wind-generated electricity is that the ammonia doesn't have to be used right away and can be relatively easily stored in various forms. As such, short-term supply and demand can be more or less decoupled, something that is very difficult to do when supplying electrical power to a grid.

However, there is another technical issue regarding the variability of wind power that I'm not sure has been sufficiently addressed. And that is how well the day-to-day operations of an ammonia plant (even the so-called 'solid-state' processes briefly discussion in the paper) will be able to cope with a power supply that can vary from over 100% of what is needed down to virtually zero in a relatively short period of time. I would think that this variability would play havoc with any sort of large electrolysis system for producing hydrogen as well as with whatever system is used to separate nitrogen from air.

A mini-grid might smooth things out a bit but not totally, and building such a grid sort of defeats the whole concept of using stranded wind.

In general, the operation of a large chemical plant (and an ammonia plant is just that) entails much complexity, which is why they like to operate at a steady rate and cannot easily tolerate highly variable and large unpredictable inputs of either materials or power.

I'd be interested in seeing this issue addressed in more depth.

There are good answers to that whole variability concern, but the patent filings are getting in the way of me talking about it :-)

SacredCowTipper -

Well, your cryptic remark indicates that the variability problem is recognized and that at least someone has been working on it.

Mind you, the problem of power variability does not just affect the actual N2 and H2 production units, but rather the entire operation, i.e., all the pumps, compressors, controls, safety features, etc., etc. As such, I would think that regardless of how you tweak the process to make it more flexible with respect to varying power, there still needs to be as least some on-site electricity storage, perhaps an amount sufficient to run the plant at normal capacity for several hours. It's either that or a back-up generator. Regardless of which is used, they both represent additional capital cost that must be factored into the overall economics.

One other perhaps minor technical issue comes to mind. While my knowledge of electrochemistry is quite rusty (not that it was all that great in the first place), is it not true that to operate an electrolysis cell efficiently, the solution has to have a fairly high conductivity which in turn requires a fairly high salt content? If so, would you not have to include salt as one of the process inputs? Not very expensive, but an additional cost nonetheless.

You're correct in stating that an ammonia production facility can not run entirely off grid. The amounts of grid to wind and particulars are trade secrets :-)

Electrolysis unit O&M cost is something we need to get a better handle on, but it's true that there is periodic maintenance required.

There are no technical issues with any of the electrolysis technologies (that I know of) in switching the cells from full to partial power levels at the drop of a hat. The cells mey even be reversible, allowing them to produce or consume power as needed.

There are at least three different groups proposing to use variable power to electrolysis cells for grid regulation. (That's three that I know of. There are probably a bunch more. It seems to be a pretty obvious and popular idea.)

The various proposals differ in the electrolysis technologies that they propose to use, and in how they propose to use the hydrogen (and oxygen, let's not forget!) that they produce. I'm intrigued by the "solid state synthesis of ammonia" covered here because of its supposed low capital cost and high efficiency. If it's for real, it would be really great!

This article shows that ammonia (NH3) production mated with wind and hydro power has the capability to readily displace fossil fuel use in agriculture. Concerns of scalability are discussed in good detail. This is a very informative article that most TOD readers should take time to review.

The largest benefit to using renewable wind and hydro to make nitrogen fertilizer is eliminating the use of coal and natural gas as the hydrogen source, thus lowering CO2 emmisions. The second benefit is to capture the wind energy that is lost when power demand in the wind production region does not meet demand. This application makes wind investments that much more attractive to investors. However, the primary goal of this source of NH3 should be for food production. The fact that nearly half of the ammonia used in US agriculture is imported is of great concern, and the proposals presented here could reduce this undersirable dependance on foreign sources.

However, the first task to accomplish is decreasing the need for ammonia. Lets stop producing so much corn due to ethanol production for auto fuel, which will in two or three years consume half of the US corn crop. Secondly lets produce more protein rich grains like soybeans and nuts like peanuts, almonds, pistashios, etc. which do not need so much nitrogen based fertilizer. Lastly, the idea of ammonia as a fuel is not desirable as the hazards for allowing the general population to handle this extremely caustic compound is just too great and the need for its use as fertilizer is too important.

We can live without driving to the mall twice a week, but we cannot live without going to the grocery store once a week.

If those in the west completely rearrange their diets it will change things dramatically. I think that would be only 4.3x as politically unpalatable as shutting down the ethanol business we have today. The National Renewable Ammonia Architecture has as an unstated design parameter the need to be politically as well as operationally executable. If we didn't take that concern into consideration we'd have to label it the National Renewable Ammonia Fantasy.

Ammonia is an inhalation hazard and I think I did talk a bit about the progression - first we'd use it to replace natgas in fixed generating scenarios, peaker plants being the obvious first target because of the very high margin during their operation. Agricultural vehicles are the next obvious target but the best solution may be ammonia driven corn production and biodiesel from corn oil; this needs to be inspected in detail. The distribution of ammonia to drive reforming stations fueling hydrogen vehicles is the safest route for consumer grade vehicles, but lets not forget the Dutch ran their school buses on ammonia during WWII without any serious incident.

I agree with the notion that we need far less ammonia for agriculture. Perhaps none. Plants fix nitrogen at a sufficient rate, and yields in organic agriculture are fine. Generally higher and less volatile than conventional according to this review article:
Badgley et. al, Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems 22 (2007): 86-108.;

Furthermore, half of grains go to feedlot meat, which is a disaster for human and environmental health.

Another problem with ammonia is that when added to the soil it upsets the carbon to nitrogen balance. More nitrogen, especially in the highly reduced form of ammonia, leads to a loss of soil organic matter. U.S. cropland has lost almost half its organic matter over the past several decades (See the Soil Carbon Center and Kansas State) and our goal should be to put it back. Soils with less organic matter allow more surface runoff (removing topsoil and nutrients with the water), permit higher surface evaporation, and retain much less water within the soil structure.

Not sure how ammonia additions increase SOM, but perhaps by carefully managing the C:N ratio in the soil, not adding too much ammonia, and doing minimal tillage, carbon could build even with ammonia added.

Perhaps you address these issues in the proposal?

If ammonia works out as a motor fuel-meaning from a cost perspective-we will be able to keep a great many desperately needed trucks running in the event oil is not available.Ammonia is handled on a regular basis on the farm and in industry with very few accidents.You can learn how it's done safely in just a few minutes if you are safety literate in agriculture or industry.Ammonia in and of itself in the hands of a typical motorist over the course of a year would probably be 100 to 1000 times less likely to cause a serious accident than say driving 10,000 miles in two way traffic.

Go,go,go,SCT [Neil] & Team! I hope for dramatic progress from your efforts.

Regarding biome fertilization: this is right-down-the-alley of my Innate Territoriality and Watershed Organizational posting series.

I think it would be fabulous if your ideas and patents somehow became so affordable that turbines on the high elevations could largely be used for ammonia ferts to support massive reforestation and gradual topsoil refurbishmment--then, it is just a DOWNHILL gravity-powered run, then give a dose of N to each of the billions of newly planted tree seedlings and other needed plants to support biodiversity. Then, the only UPHILL requirement is PKS and other vital trace nutrients--massive energy savings!

When the wind blows: picture an advanced setup using a ballistic trajectory for ejecting great distances downhill lots of formed urea darts that would mostly self-bury into the downslope topsoil. Any later rain/snow inputs would help by further aiding in the topsoil dissolving process. Mountain HIGH to Valley LOW!

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Given the cooling requirements for the plants I don't think you'll find them up high like that. Here's another scenario to consider.

An ethanol plant produces tremendous amounts of clean, cool carbon dioxide. If you were feeding one from biomass you could run all of the forestry equipment in an area, a colocated ammonia plant could use the carbon dioxide to make urea, and if it were a first generation plant it would have raw hydrogen available.

The raw hydrogen, in addition to being part of the ammonia feedstock, could be used to inflate dirigibles bearing urea payloads for the higher areas and with the right engines the lifting gas could be used as fuel, drawing down on lifting capability as the payload was dispensed.

We've going to be needing dirigibles anyway as we've so polluted low Earth orbit that it's going to mess our satellite systems anyway. A hydrogen lifted/hydrogen fueled dirigible fleet is in our future if we plan on maintaining our GPS/communications/etc. It's a nice synergy.

Thxs for the reply, Neil--you have obviously been doing some deep thinking on this,Kudos!

Cooling requirements? I noticed that discussed in the report. But I think it's a non-issue. Even at the levels you assume, the heat load isn't large enough that it would need to constrain plant location. Dry cooling could handle it well enough.

More fundamentally, though, if the plant uses steam electrolysis, there's essentially no heat load at all. Electrolysis is an endothermic reaction; cell efficiency will be 100%, because ohmic and polarization losses in the cell are less than the thermal energy that the reaction will soak up. Even with recuperators on the hydrogen and oxygen exhaust streams to heat the incoming steam and help boil the water, you'll end up having to add resistance heaters to maintain temperatures in the electrolysis cells!

If you're using electrolysis you can figure on half a million BTUs an hour per every thousand tons the plant makes annually. That is, as I understand it, a good bit of flow when you're talking a 50k ton/year plant.

I'm still not convinced steam electrolysis will ever be competitive. I've had too much experience with zirconia. If anyone is aware of a substantive technical paper showiing real promise for steam electrolysis, I love to see it.

make urea,

Urea can drive a process to convert sand into sandstone - and perhaps even 'harder' rocks.

Nice synthesis.

I find one important omission of the science rather worrying however. The article says

"More problematic is the nitrous oxide (NO2) found in concentrations up to 25 ppm. This gas is 310x as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide, but its resident time in the atmosphere is much shorter."

leading me to wonder 'how much shorter?'

The IPCC report ( chapter 2) tells the truth: NO2 has a lifetime in the atmosphere of 114 years! THIS IS TEN TIMES LONGER THAN METHANE.

The fact that the authors did not know this, or did not bother to find it out is understandable, given their obvious enthusiasm for all aspects of ammonia. However, it is a serious omission from the analysis that needs to be included. Also, what does the 25ppm phrase mean? 25ppm of gas flues from vehicles that burn ammonia?

I agree with a previous poster who said the first priority must be on reducing demand for ammonia.


Here's the chapter in question, see page 212. I find it particularly annoying that the authors said its residence time is "much shorter" as if they were trying to mislead people. 100 years is less than an order of magnitude below the average residence time of a molecule of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Just thinking an interesting future stage of the analysis would be a breakdown of the waste gases: When NH4 burns in O2, what % of the result is H2O, NO2, N2 etc?

Any chemists out there with a clue?


It depends on how well tuned the engine is. If NH3 and O2 are burned in the perfect mixture, it would produce H20 and N2. If the mixture is to oxygen rich, it will produce NOx's. If the mixture is too oxygen lean, the exhaust will contain unburnt ammonia which is even more toxic. The ammonia enthusiasts will tell us that all cars will be perfectly tuned all the time. I have no data.

Having been at the Ammonia Fuel Network conference I know that it's a control problem on both spark and compression engines, each needs at least some hydrocarbons to get started, and the cooler, slower burning ammonia is pretty well behaved with the exception of the nitrous oxide. It's way more potent than CO2, but you only get 25 ppm, so it's a net win, but not perfect.

25 ppm of what? Well, the results need to be peer reviewed and they're not there yet. My feeling is that it's resolvable but it'll take a little time and attention to get the emissions right.

It's the same as for an engine burning petrol or natural gas. If it's a nice hot well-tuned engine, petrol gives you H2O and CO2. In practice, when the engine's starting up, and when it's not well-tuned or when idling at traffic lights, or if it gets revved too much, combustion is imperfect, and you get lots of CO (carbon monoxide), which is the deadly poison some suicides rely on when they put the exhaust into their car and run the engine.

So ideally an NH3 engine would produce just H2O and N2. In practice, a significant amount of nitrous oxides (NOx) will be produced. This will contribute to acid rain and the greenhouse effect. In fact, 800 million cars burning NH3 (ammonia) will most likely have a greater greenhouse effect than 800 million cars burning petrol or natural gas; less NOx will be produced than CO2, but it has a much greater greenhouse effect.

The other aspect is producing ammonia for agriculture. Something like 7-8% of greenhouse gases (in CO2-equivalent terms) is caused by too much nitrogen fertiliser being added, and this leaching into the soil, reacting and being processed by bacteria there, and becoming NOx gases. However, this is a problem with both artificial and natural fertiliser (animal manure, etc). So that's a problem not with how you get the nitrogen fertiliser in the first place, but how it's applied. Anything which offers cheap and plentiful nitrogen fertiliser will tend to increase the amount farmers use; the typical farmer is more concerned with having a fertile field this season than climate change in a generation or two.

I agree that hydrogenation could be a good way of storing energy. I'm not sure ammonia is the best way to do that. An alternative is to start with syngas perhaps based on local charcoal and water
C + H2O = CO + H2
After scrubbing undesirable products like tars then wind generated hydrogen can be added. The mixture is passed over nickel catalyst under pressure
(CO + H2) + 2H2 = H2O + CH4
The net energy is low after deducting tar cleanup costs and the need for pressure vessels. However the dried methane can be used in any NGV. Those NGVs don't need $10,000 batteries.

The next step is to make this hydrogenation process compact and efficient, a goal that may not be achieved. Windpower rather than solar suits rainy areas that can produce biomass. I think composting and manures may be the long term answer to agricultural nitrogen even if it means wheat yields on the prairies has to decline.

What you suggest yields energy, what we suggest with ammonia yields fertilizer, or energy either directly as ammonia or indirectly as biofuels, and it can also be a catalyst for accelerated carbon sequestration. The flexibility of ammonia provides many choices for the final fate of the energy found in its hydrogen bonds, permitting construction with the confidence that some beneficial use will be found despite shifting climate conditions and overall liquid fuel supplies.

Since I'm a chemist I took a long hard look at various chemical pathways for energy storage.

Ketone alcohol redox reactions seemed to be the most promising to me.

However for load balancing natural sources phase change/thermal storage just seems to come out on top. If storage volumes are not the primary concern then they seem to make the most sense.

If you do have chemical storage it seems secondary denser chemical storage seems to be possible but if your doing chemical reactions why not just make stuff to sell for its chemical value ?
Ammonia for fertilizer, Methanol for synthesis etc. I just keep coming back to if your going to do synthesis its not a lot more work to make higher value synthetic starting materials.

With phase change storage to balance the load and a local electric grid you can centralize the micro synthesis plant to use excess electricity from a fairly large collection area.

Anyway nothing agianst it conceptually just why make fuel ?

I just keep coming back to if your going to do synthesis its not a lot more work to make higher value synthetic starting materials.

Absolutely! The big step in all cases is splitting the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen. Once you have hydrogen, there are a million things you can do with it. Making ammonia is one of them, and to the extent that we need ammonia for fertilizer, it makes sense for that to be one application. But reducing CO2 to methane, methanol, or (by way of synthesis gas) to a whole host of synthetic hydrocarbons is also attractive.

One of us (Dave Bradley) actually has a methanol synthesis patent in the works. It's meant to provide the methanol needed for making biodiesel from the corn oil before the grain goes in for fermentation, gathering the needed CO2 from the fermentation process. It's very nice in terms of wind energy - you store the CO2 and corn oil and when the wind comes up you get the hydrogen, make the methanol, and then do the finish work on the biodiesel.

I thought the microchannel solid catalyst was supposed to eliminate the need for methanol in biodiesel production.

The whole scene with hydrogen and biofuels is confused. Some want to add hydrogen like Finland's NextBTL and some want to remove hydrogen (to feed fuel cells) from biofuel like the US Army.

It's too early to say whether adding hydrogen from nonfossil sources can boost biofuels by enough eg methane from wood.

If you have methanol why on earth mess with fuels make plastic monomers or dyes or anything else drugs for example.

I'd not even mess around with making fuel why ?

Once you have supplied the top value add synthetic markets then it might make sense to expand into fuel.

I'd assume most of the approaches are looking at microchannel reactors and it becomes a issue of catalysts conditions etc.

If you have ammonia I bet you could easily set up very efficient stripping of CO2 from air then your off to the races.

Certainly inside the synthesis systems you could uses some of the starting materials for power heat generation to drive your reactors but you should be able to keep the C02 in concentrated form if your running synthesis you could even burn the Ammonia in and oxygen rich envirionement to generate nitrogen oxides for other synthetic pathways.

Ammonium Nitrate for example.

Given enough work and ingenuity you should be able to develop a synthetic system that can be tuned to change its output depending on market conditions.

Fuel use cases would only be met if they make sense. You might produce fuel but I'd suspect if you did it right that would seldom be the market supplied by this sort of approach.

Again thats not to say you won't burn some of your starting materials for their caloric value all synthesis plants do this but you would aggressively capture the concentrated combustion products for later synthesis and as I mentioned you probably want to even then treat it more like a synthesis pathway. Methane for example would be burned to they syngas stage not all the way to CO2 so you leverage the reactive products. CO2 probably reacted with hydrogen to methane and then methane to Ammonia maybe for example and you can leverage all kinds of heat of reactions.

You have this very interesting problem of needing to capture C02 :)

My point is once you start doing real synthesis the complexity level is fairly flat i.e once your making stuff it tends to be a making stuff problem not that dependent on the actual organic molecules your making in the general sense. Given this it seems natural to focus on the most profitable synthetic approaches first and also to work towards a general purpose synthesizer than to target some dubious market like synthetic fuels.

The ethanol plants would be in rural areas and any methanol or other substances would need to be shipped out. We figured out how much wind would be needed to drive the methanol required for the biodiesel but never calculated what it would take to fully consume the CO2 output. That's an exercise for another day ...

I've looked into it a bit I'm convinced that given the wealth of chemicals we manufacture several of them are good candidates for synthesis from renewable energy sources. Whats interesting is some of the paths that would make sense are not the ones that the industry has optimized for. Your generally looking at electrochemical or fairly benign thermal process but the number of possibilities is so large its actually tough to narrow down to the ones that make sense. Since your effectively assuming syngas anything is possible.

The processes outlined in this patent pretty much cover the basic reactions.

I've got no clue what this patent is trying to cover given this is hundred year old basic petrochemical stuff.

Once you have one and two carbon compounds with reactive groups you can then do anything.

Thanks for a great article.
If all ammonia consumption was to be derived from electricity this would be 20,500MW average(12,600MW domestic and 7,900MW imported).
Since the US uses NG to generate 100,000MW average(40-50%efficiency), the advantage of using wind power to directly synthesize ammonia would have to be either higher efficiency and/or more flexible use of electricity(for example off-peak power).

Can you give some idea of the efficiency of electrolysis versus the efficiency of using NG(ie kWh/tonne NH3 versus BTU or MJ(NG)/tonne NH3)? I am assuming that it takes 7.2MJ of NG to generate 1kWH(3.6MJ).

That's an interesting angle and Dave would have to answer. My simplistic answer is that the natural gas produces 1.8 tons of CO2 per ton of ammonia, while renewable production produces no more than the amortized CO2 emissions embedded in the equipment used for production.

The point raised is if the renewable energy can displace more NG used to generate kWh for the grid, than is used to generate the same amount of ammonia, we may be better off just using the electricity to save NG and the saved NG for ammonia synthesis. Of course NG is very valuable for peak demand, and eventually we won't have any NG so could have value even if less efficient ( on a NG cu ft or MJ basis).

It seems to me that the benefits of this technology, like many renewables, appears as a disadvantage against the current means it will naturally be compared to.. but that this provides a pathway to a needed and useful product without the assumption that NG is available, affordable and central to the process.

In short, it IS (apparently) more appealing to just use the windpower directly for electricity, and almost all of them do already. Putting this kind of system in place as well offers an alternate route to some of our necessities. In that sense, it would primarily be an act of diversifying the energy portfolio.

I've been on big productions where the whole thing is held up for the lack of one adapter.. one little simple connector that will let this device talk to that device. That is how I view SCT's stranded Ammonia and projects like it. It makes a unique connection that gives it some independence from the currently standardized system.

Jokuhl gets it. All of my work the last decade has been telecom integration and the decade before that was software integration. I've not so much designed things as designed how things from disparate vendors and mindsets (TDM timeslots vs packets) fit together.

I came to this sector unafraid to say "What if we functionally run out of natural gas?" "What if carbon suddenly isn't free and is in fact very expensive?" "What if civil disorder breaks down in parts of the U.S. affecting transport and distribution?"

This sense of fitting things together coupled with the mindset that we're more providing a service bureau (or a value added reseller) for those who have expertise in certain areas in the ammonia production and use chain is why we're getting the results we do.

And lets not forget that ammonia production equals the time shifting of renewable generation. It works as a fuel in all of the places we generate with diesel and natural gas today.

Nice historical review of the development of the Haber-Bosch technique of producing ammonia with high pressure physiochemistry in Thomas Hager's book,
The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler (Hardcover).
I am in the middle of reading this book and so coming across this post was definately serendipitous.

I need to know much more about the early history of Haber Bosch production. I read some 140 year old Spanish geology reports to get at the information on the Atacama nitrate deposits ... feels like a bit of an obsession at times.

Thanks Gail:
We live out here on the Big Island, in the middle of the pacific. Ammonia for food and fuel is exactly the kind of solution that might work for us.



Robert Cohen has done a good bit of work on ocean thermal energy conversion - the Hawaiian seas are a good candidate for this process and ammonia is a good energy bearer for the plantships producing it. I believe there has been a recent New York Times article about this.

Mahalo Neal;
The National Renewable Ammonia Architecture Spring 2009 is a very timely and important writing for us in Hawaii. I will be sharing your article with legislators, university and community leaders. Thank You for doing it. More than 80% of our food is imported and nearly 90% of our transportation and electricity generation is based on fossil fuel.
I have more than 30 years experience in farming -- from conventional to hydroponic. I worry that people believe that organic farming will be able to feed all of us. It can't and we need to find realistic and doable solutions for the future when we drop down the backside of the Peak Oil supply curve.
Richard Ha

Your people need to see the work Cohen has done - some of it is actually Hawaii specific. You can go to, it's real easy to find my email, and I'd be happy to introduce you.

And if you need expert testimony I'd be delighted to drop in to the island again :-)

Its fun to speculate, but the whole renewable ammonia idea is only a rhetorical tool for analysis rather than a policy objective for well over a century. As long as you're producing electricity from fossil inputs, ammonia production is on the bottom of the list of priorities. Its the same with cement production, steel production, or any other industry that uses carbon as a chemical feedstock as much as energy.

So fun rhetorically, but pointless.

This is beautiful work, Neal, but as pointed out by several, it will be very hard for renewable ammonia from stranded wind to compete – probably for at least another 6 years. Ammonia, at $500/ton, is about $23/GJ (LHV), but we’ve recently seen it as low as one-fourth this price. It won’t be long (probably under 2.5 years) before standard bulk fuels (diesel, gasoline, jet fuel, ethanol...) are over $1200/ton. Their mean cost per unit energy would then be about $26/GJ, and their total global market (by mass) is 6 times that of ammonia. For these reasons, we concluded there was much more potential benefit from making standard liquid fuels from CO2 and off-peak wind energy than from focusing on ammonia. So we looked at what could be done to improve the system efficiency of hydrocarbon and alcohol synthesis processes, and found there were many opportunities. Take a look at our Windfuels website. We presented a paper at the WindPower conference 2 weeks ago (we’ll post it soon on our website), and we’ll be presenting three technical papers at the ASME sustainability conference in July that explain some of the advances in more detail.

There is sufficient wind resource in the U.S. and sufficient point-source CO2 to synthesize twice our current transportation fuel usage. We, like you and most others with good ideas, are looking for funding opportunities. Have you considered the currently open ARPA-E FOA? You might have a chance. Give it a try. We plan to.

I don't disagree that opportunistic H2 generation works well with CO2 capture - we filed a patent application for such techniques being used to generate methanol and are pursing that ARPA thing.

Not at you in particular, but in general the economic analysis here sometimes makes me laugh a bit - market analysis focused on some particular commodity is all well and good, but what's the market like when food production is disrupted? We have to solve that first before doing anything else.

We live here on the Big Island of Hawaii on the flank of active volcanoes. Puna Geothermal Ventures have produced roughly 20 MW of electricity for the last 30 years. There are several locations on the island that look promising as geothermal resources. Geothermal energy is cheap, stable and plentiful. We would like to know at what point geothermal production of ammonia becomes competitive against alternatives. We worry about not having enough nitrogen to grow the food that we will need to feed ourselves under worse case.

Stranded wind ammonia is a giant waste of time when there are still places where they flare stranded natural gas. The entire concept of carbonless ammonia is a giant waste of time while there are still fossil fuel plants burning coal.

There will still be power plants burning coal at least 70 years from now. We can't wait for them to shut down before beginning to transition all aspects of our economy from fossil fuels.

One of the oft-forgotten side benefits of using off-peak clean energy to produce H2 is that it simultaneously produces clean O2. As we start making a significant amount of our transport fuels and ammonia from electrolysis H2, the price of LOX will drop, and that will make it easier to convert small steams of natural gas to liquid fuels rather than flare it. The primary driver in the minimum practical size of a GTL plant is currently the cost of high-purity O2, which is needed in the first step, partial oxidation.

Its a giant waste of resources that can be better spent elsewhere; You can get far better results with ice storage for air conditioners for less using off peak power than making H2. You can get far more H2 from stranded gas reserves that are flared anyways than from stranded wind.

These are rhetorical exercises only, for talking about policy well after we've shut down the last coal plant. They aren't any sort of policy objective that in any way will take shape over the next century unless its at the hand of misguided politicians pursuing dubious interests a la corn ethanol.

This is a very interesting and important subject.

One suggestion would be to have a section, something like "Ammonia in Agriculture for Dummies," that could answer really, really stupid questions like, what's this stuff that I buy at the grocery store that's labeled "Ammonia," is liquid, and smells really toxic? Is that what farmers are applying to their fields? If I pour Kroger's Ammonia on my tomatoes will they grow better, maybe I should dilute it first, or what? I am trying to wrap my brain around my own experience of fertilizer and ammonia. To me fertilizer for my small garden is solid; it's either compost from table scraps or compost from bunny poop from our bunnies. I don't know the first thing about commercial agriculture except that it's big and they use a lot of heavy machinery. Maybe a picture would help.

Another suggestion would be a brief history of fertilizer and how it tremendously improved yields in the 20th century. Actually you have some references to this -- very interesting -- especially the part about nitrates in the 19th century from South America. But most charts of yields per unit area show this huge increase in yields after World War II, don't they? What happened here? Because it is fixed in my mind that yields went up dramatically after WW2, I don't know where to put this information about the mineral fertilizers from the 19th century. Why weren't the fertilizers from the 19th century as effective as those applied after WW2, or is there something else like irrigation and pesticides going on here? I'm not looking for a detailed analysis, just a sort of ballpark analysis to let me know where you're coming from.

One more question I have -- I'm not sure this is quite on topic, but maybe someone knows the answer off the top of their head. I understand that organic agriculture in the U. S. requires that there be no synthetic chemical inputs. Wouldn't solar-powered or wind-powered production of artificial fertilizers still not be considered organic? And doesn't current organic agriculture get their fertilizer from manure, mostly, which in turn comes from factory farms? I'm not trying to wade into a full-blown debate over organic, just trying to fit this into whatever else I think I know. It seems that getting manure from factory farms would be more dependent on fossil fuels (albeit indirectly) than synthetic ammonia from stranded wind power.

I think we've got the foundation of a book, either tightly integrated, or a collection of essays from various thinkers in the area. A more detailed addressing of large scale farming would be important for those readers not native to the fly over states.

The fertilization issue is a simple mass balance problem. Natural precipitation based biologically available nitrogen is five to twenty pounds per acre annually. You need 150+ to get a good corn crop. We make ammonia, then turn it into ammonium nitrate, ammonium phosphate, urea, and so forth in order to provide this nutrient. Without it you don't get the yield. Organic is better in all sorts of ways (IMHO) but you simply can't gin up something that doesn't exist out of raw good intention and feel good ideology.

This is helpful. The "turn it into ammonium nitrate, ammonium phosphate, urea, and so forth" was the piece I was missing and I think a lot of readers concerned about energy but not clear on how conventional agriculture works will miss. It would be interesting to know where organic gets their nitrogen (factory farms, I'll bet) and why 19th century and early 20th fertilization didn't work as well.

Organic guys, at least the marijuana growers, are importing bags of bat guano from South America. On a larger scale the nitrogen favorite seems to be cultivating hairy vetch, and either co-planting with a crop or plowing it under. I'm not up on organic practices like I should be.