Ammonia: the accelerator of the energy transition!

Hydrogen can be produced in many places in the world. However, getting it where it is needed is very complex. If you want to transport hydrogen from A to B to use it as a (green) alternative to fossil fuels, you will soon discover that much energy is lost along the way. But the world is working hard on finding solutions. Escher sees nitrogen in the form of ammonia as a carrier of hydrogen and a major opportunity to accelerate the energy transition.

 

The facts: hydrogen has now been identified as ‘the’ alternative to fossil fuels. In the industry sector and, for example, as fuel for city buses, inland waterway vessels or heavy goods vehicles. But for the time being, the hydrogen used for these applications still has one drawback: it is often grey or blue hydrogen, not green. Grey hydrogen means that it has been produced using fossil fuels whereby the CO2 has been emitted into the atmosphere, thus contributing to climate change. Blue hydrogen is produced in a similar way, but the released CO2 is captured and stored. Both methods of production are, therefore, not green.

 

Fortunately, the market for green hydrogen is growing. And as the name suggests, this hydrogen is produced using wind or solar energy, so its production is also sustainable. Problem solved? Not quite, says Martijn In der Maur, Director of Escher.

Less dependence on fossil energy

“The basis is that we all want to use green energy. However, not everyone in the Netherlands can switch to green energy; there is simply not enough available to cover the entire demand. As a result, we are still largely dependent on fossil energy for our ever-increasing energy needs. The use of fossil energy is the part that needs to be replaced, but our own supply of wind and solar energy will never be enough.”

 

And so Escher is exploring beyond our national borders. At present, the areas with many more hours of sunshine and wind than the Netherlands are slowly moving towards producing and exporting green energy as much as possible. The Middle East, Australia, the west coasts of North and South America, North Africa, South Africa and Central Asia all offer enormous opportunities for the production of green hydrogen.

 

Ammonia, as an energy carrier for hydrogen, can facilitate transport from these areas. Moreover, ammonia (NH3) is composed of nitrogen (N2) and hydrogen (H2) and is highly suitable for this process. It can be transported at higher temperatures and lower pressures than hydrogen. In addition, ammonia does not contain carbon, unlike some other energy carriers.

 

To make a significant difference to the energy transition, it is vital that small and medium-sized users can also switch to green hydrogen in the short term. From a logistical point of view, a few things are required. Transporting hydrogen from large port companies to this target group is complicated and less sustainable. According to Martijn and Commercial Manager Maarten Brandenburg, decentralisation (local production of hydrogen from ammonia) is the solution to reach smaller users.

Decentralised hydrogen production

Escher Process Modules has developed a technology for the decentralised production of green hydrogen from ammonia. The advantage is that production would be closer to the end user, such as inland navigation, transport companies or petrol stations. As a result, there is no need for the technically more complex – and therefore less efficient – transport of hydrogen by heavy goods vehicles. Instead, the hydrogen is produced where it is most efficient, from ammonia, close to the end user. Another advantage is that the traditional way of producing hydrogen (through electrolysis) requires about twelve times more energy. However, the energy needed to produce hydrogen would be produced abroad using solar energy, where it is converted into ammonia. Here in the Netherlands, only a fraction of this energy would be needed to convert the ammonia back into hydrogen. The technology developed by Escher splits the ammonia back into hydrogen and nitrogen. About 80% of this nitrogen is already in the atmosphere, so there are no emissions. In addition, the production is entirely green. Escher is working with a scale-up specialising in producing green hydrogen locally. This company uses membrane reactors to ‘crack’ the ammonia into hydrogen and nitrogen, which are then separated.

 

“We see the market moving towards hydrogen”, says Maarten. “The larger companies are signing contracts with countries where copious amounts of solar energy can be generated, but for the time being, the developments we are seeing will still be limited to the industrial sector, for example, for the port of Rotterdam. Nevertheless, we’re seeing a market emerge where hydrogen is needed locally. Of course, this could be solved by building huge import terminals and getting it there, but there is another problem: transport.”

Your own ‘filling station’

Maarten: “What we aim to achieve is that transport companies, port companies, inland navigation, service stations or, for example, municipalities wishing to run everything on hydrogen will have their own ‘filling station’. In a safe place outside the city. If you want to use hydrogen on a larger scale, a few heavy goods vehicles for transport will no longer be enough.” On the engineering side, Escher has a wealth of in-house knowledge in systems integration: getting all the auxiliary systems to work as desired using this specially developed membrane technology. Hydrogen is also 99.999% pure and a suitable fuel for fuel cells.

 

“The technical concept is there. It just needs to be put on the market. How it will develop further is uncertain. But we do know that the demand is growing”, Martijn continues. “It is up to us to involve clients in our story.”

Nitrogen vs Nitrogen

Ammonia is split into hydrogen and nitrogen (N2) using the technology developed by Escher and its partner. The emission of this nitrogen is not harmful to the environment. And yet we hear and read a lot on the news, in newspapers and on websites about the problems with nitrogen emissions in the industrial, construction and livestock farming sectors. So, what is the situation?

 

People generally talk about ‘nitrogen’, but what they are really talking about is nitrogen oxides (NOX), a compound of oxygen and nitrogen. Nitrogen oxides are formed at high temperatures where oxygen and nitrogen are present. Exhaust fumes from cars and lorries are a major source of nitrogen oxides, as are emissions from power stations.

 

Nitrogen itself, N2, is a colourless and odourless gas that surrounds us and is present all over the world. Almost eighty percent of the air we breathe is nitrogen. This nitrogen is not harmful to the environment and can be safely emitted during the conversion of ammonia into hydrogen.

Opportunities for less-developed countries

But the story is not entirely one-sided. Green hydrogen is perhaps the best and cleanest alternative to fossil fuel energy needs. But it can also have a positive impact on prosperity in less developed areas. Martijn: “The areas in Africa, Asia and South America where a huge amount of solar energy can be generated are not typically wealthy countries. This aspect also appeals to us.”

 

The biggest challenge for the future of green hydrogen lies in closing the loop, predicts Maarten. “In fact, the whole trading platform has yet to emerge. A barrel of crude oil is traded on the open market at bargain prices, with intermediaries bringing producers and buyers together. This would also be necessary for ammonia and must be a condition. That would make it interesting for everyone. The good news is that the first signs are already there.”

 

What does the future hold for hydrogen? It’s positive, according to Maarten and Martijn. “In any case, it is certain that we are dependent on other countries and areas if we want to switch completely to green energy. It is utopian to think that we can do it alone. Both have to be involved.”

Want to know more about this development?

Martijn and Maarten will be delighted to discuss this with you! Get in touch via +31 88 943 3600 or send a message.

Martijn In der Maur and Maarten Brandenburg of Escher