Ian Clifford, CEO and Board Chair of FuelPositive, showcases the company’s green ammonia production technology which will help tackle food insecurity and failing supply chains.
Ammonia saved the world over 100 years ago by preventing famine through the mass-scale centralised production of nitrogen fertilisers. It is about to do it again, but this time it will be green ammonia, produced in a decentralised way, onsite, where it is needed, that will make it possible to increase food production and feed a rapidly growing world population.
FuelPositive’s onsite, containerised green ammonia production technology is exactly what is needed now to solve the problems of carbon emissions associated with ammonia production, failing supply chains, and global food insecurity. We are taking ammonia production away from centralised refineries and giving it to farmers who will make their own ammonia at home, on their farms, where they use it to fertilise their crops. FuelPositive’s technology is solving the fertiliser crisis by bringing the solution home.
If you keep up with international news, you will have heard about the fertiliser crisis that is threatening global food security. Faced with inadequate supply and skyrocketing prices, farmers expect significantly smaller yields, and the United Nations is warning of mass starvation.1 This is happening at a time when world food requirements are rapidly increasing. To meet the population’s food needs, farmers should be increasing production now and building up reserves,2 but with fertiliser shortages, they can’t.
Simply put, we need to make more fertiliser – and we need it to be affordable and carbon-free, so it does not contribute to climate change.
Ammonia’s role in feeding the world
Also called NH3, ammonia is one of the most produced chemicals on the planet, with 200 million tonnes consumed annually.
Most people are not even aware of ammonia, but farmers are informed because ammonia is their primary source of nitrogen fertiliser. Currently, 80% of ammonia manufactured globally is used in agriculture as fertiliser.
The N in NH3 stands for nitrogen, which is an essential building-block nutrient for maintaining healthy soil and growing healthy crops. It is estimated that nitrogen fertiliser makes it possible to feed half the global population.
For over 100 years, ammonia has been produced in massive refineries using an invention called the Haber-Bosch process, which has been hailed as one of the most important inventions of the 20th century, saving the world from famine through the mass-scale production of nitrogen fertilisers.
The ammonia paradox
All of the traditional, grey ammonia in the world is made in a surprisingly small number of centralised refineries. They use massive amounts of fossil fuels – mostly natural gas, coal, and naphtha – to provide the high heat and pressure required by the Haber-Bosch system to make ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen.
That is the fundamental problem with grey ammonia. The Haber-Bosch system is one of the most polluting manufacturing processes on Earth, second only to oil refining.3 On average, globally, 2.87 tonnes of greenhouse gases are emitted for each tonne of grey ammonia produced.4 And the supply chain that gets the ammonia from the refineries to the end users is also polluting, relying on fossil fuel-run ships, trains and transport trucks.
We call it the ‘ammonia paradox.’ Production and distribution of the very product that we need for food security is negatively contributing to climate change, which is a major threat to farming and food security.
Failing supply chain
The pollution is only part of the problem associated with the grey ammonia supply chain that the farmer faces.
There are huge price fluctuations and availability issues that occur because of a wide range of factors, including the unexpected shutdown of ammonia refineries and distribution systems caused by extreme weather events such as floods and hurricanes (the result of climate change). There are also fossil fuel shortages that shut down production or create massive price increases. Even international sociopolitical events cause disruptions – Russia’s war in Ukraine is just a recent example.
As a result, the price of grey ammonia has quadrupled in recent years. For a farmer buying grey ammonia for a large farm, that wild fluctuation is simply unsustainable and, unless stopped, it will put farmers out of business.
Beyond price, farmers have no control over when they will receive a delivery of ammonia and if it will be the amount they need. That means they fertilise their crops when they have got the fertiliser – not when conditions are ideal. It also results in over-use at times and under-use at other times. That is not good for the soil, and it is not good for the crops, causing other nitrogen-related pollution as well.
There are major problems today with the production of ammonia and its supply chain. Farmers – and other end users of ammonia – are held hostage by this unreliability, with no predictability as to what they have to pay for their grey ammonia, how much they will get, and when they will receive it.
The FuelPositive solution
At FuelPositive, we were thinking: what if we could make ammonia affordable, accessible, and clean? Green ammonia instead of grey. That would mean producing it without using fossil fuels, which would eliminate the massive pollution problem created by large, centralised refineries. It would reduce the emissions footprint of agriculture by ending carbon emissions associated with the production of fertiliser.
And what if we could eliminate the supply chain, too, by making ammonia where it is needed, when it is needed? Most of the people buying it are individual farmers who are using it on their land. Why not make it at home?
That is exactly what FuelPositive has done – we have cleaned it up and brought it home.
We have developed a technology that manufactures carbon-free, green ammonia from the air, water, and sustainable electricity such as solar, wind, or hydro energy. No fossil fuels are used; that is what makes it green. It also functions at much lower pressures and temperatures while operating on different energy loads, which makes it economical and versatile. This allows the FuelPositive system to be easily turned on and off, and restarted, compared to Haber-Bosch systems, which must be kept at a steady operating rate and take weeks to start and stop.
FuelPositive’s system includes a nitrogen generator to produce nitrogen from the air, a water electrolyser to produce hydrogen from water, and a novel, patent-pending ammonia synthesis converter to produce ammonia from the hydrogen and nitrogen. The output is green anhydrous ammonia, which is used by many farmers in Canada and around the globe. Future planned adaptations include modifications to manufacture aqueous green ammonia, which is more popular than anhydrous ammonia in some areas of the world, including Europe.
The onsite, containerised green ammonia production systems are modular and scalable. FuelPositive’s initial systems will produce 300kg (500L) of green ammonia per day – enough for a 2,000-acre farm. They are built to fit within standard 20-foot shipping containers, allowing them to be easily shipped to the location where the green ammonia is used – and because they are modular, they can be scaled up or down, depending on the farmer’s requirements.
The green ammonia is stored on the farm in standard ammonia storage tanks and used as needed. While the primary application on farms is fertiliser, green ammonia can also be used as a fuel for grain drying and to power other farm machinery, including generators for creating electricity. That would allow farmers to free themselves from using any fossil fuels on their farms. With green ammonia produced at home, the need for diesel and propane can ultimately be eliminated.
Each FuelPositive system is expected to have a life of 30 to 40 years, with the upgrading of the catalyst at the 15-year mark. Otherwise, maintenance costs will be minimal. FuelPositive will monitor it, optimise it, and maintain it remotely, and use its Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) software to keep things running smoothly. The long product life is critical as farmers seek control over costs. The system technology will be continually advancing and, due to its modular design and remote connectivity, each customer will be able to take advantage of new technologies and upgrades as they become available.
With the FuelPositive green ammonia production system, farmers are in control – for the first time – of the price they pay for fertiliser and fuel, the supply they need, the timing they require, and even their energy costs. If they also use it for fuel, it will vastly reduce and regulate their two largest expenses – fertiliser and fuel. For farmers, it is a game-changer. For the rest of us, it means food security.
Additional uses of ammonia
Green, rather than grey or blue (the result of controversial carbon capture), has many more uses beyond fertiliser. These applications have not been seriously considered because of the carbon intensity of traditional, grey ammonia.
Most people do not realise it, but ammonia can be used as a fossil fuel replacement in gasoline, diesel, and other fossil-fuel-burning engines and turbines. In fact, NASA’s X-15 aircraft, which set speed and altitude records in the 1950s, was fuelled by ammonia.5
By using a straightforward conversion process, green ammonia could be a suitable fuel for any vehicle on the road today, resulting in no CO2 emissions.
Green ammonia will undoubtedly play a significant role in the hydrogen economy as a carrier of hydrogen. Green ammonia stores 65% more hydrogen than highly compressed pure hydrogen.
Fuel cells are a logical addition. Green ammonia can be used cost-efficiently for use in fuel cell technologies that have historically been hindered by storage and infrastructure problems. Green ammonia allows for increases in power and energy densities to operate fuel cells, and a lower cost per watt generated. The energy density of ammonia alone over any chemical battery is dramatic, in the order of nine times that of lithium-ion batteries, and over three times that of compressed hydrogen.
Grid storage is another emerging market for green ammonia. The company expects its grid storage solution to especially appeal to remote communities that rely on propane or diesel to be shipped in for fuelling generators. For example, with FuelPositive’s onsite, containerised green ammonia systems in place, a remote northern community could use solar panels that would benefit from long hours of sunlight in the summer, and store that electricity in the form of green ammonia until needed in the fall and winter when solar panels are not effective because of a lack of sunlight.
Pre-sales and manufacturing
Pre-sales opened on 10 August 2022, with enquiries coming in from all around the globe. A modular, scalable technology and onsite model is attractive to end users from a wide variety of sectors. Interest received to date will consume the initial batch manufacturing capacity for 2023. The plan is to begin building an assembly-line manufacturing facility in 2023 to allow for mass manufacturing by the end of 2023 or early 2024.
There is more to do to reduce the greenhouse gases associated with ammonia. Once carbon-free, green ammonia is produced on farms using FuelPositive systems, there is still the problem of nitrous oxide (NOx) and other nitrogen-related emissions. These are greenhouse gases emitted by all types of nitrogen fertilisers (organic or synthetic) – whether the nitrogen comes from animal manure or from manufactured ammonia produced using a carbon-free process.
The science around sustainable farming is advancing daily, and FuelPositive is actively taking on this issue as a key challenge. Supporting best farming practices for emission reduction is critical to the company’s ability to fulfil its cradle-to-cradle commitment. It is working with top advisors at the University of Guelph, Canada, and elsewhere to identify partnerships and acquisitions that will facilitate sustainable farming. Specifically, it is exploring how to use green ammonia as fertiliser in the least polluting and most sustainable way to help feed a growing population around the world.
Controlled Environment Agriculture
FuelPositive is also exploring the role its green ammonia production systems can play in the Controlled Environment Agriculture sector. Pilot project partners are now engaged to work with FuelPositive’s systems to provide carbon-free nitrogen fertiliser, as well as for fossil fuel replacement, dehumidification, water and system purification, sanitising, and heating and cooling, as green ammonia is an incredibly versatile chemical with so many uses.
FuelPositive also expects to generate significant revenue from carbon credits, which will fund future growth and offset the price of its systems for customers. The company will trade in voluntary markets. The values assigned to carbon reductions differ depending on the jurisdiction.
- Ammonia Technology Roadmap published by International Energy Agency, 9 https://www.iea.org/reports/ammonia-technology-roadmap
Please note, this article will also appear in the twelfth edition of our quarterly publication.