Last week Houston investment banker and peak oil prognosticator Matt Simmons popped a plan to use wind, the generated electricity and air to manufacture ammonia. Then just use it to fuel cars.  The price to start up is “only” $25 billion plus a new generation of cars for consumers to buy.  Is ammonia, NH3, remotely practical?

Ammonia Molecule in 3D 1 Blue N and 3 Gray H

Lets compare with first fossil petroleum, at less than $5 per barrel in the Middle East to more than $50 from oil sands and some offshore production, petroleum products sell profitably at prices that consumers can pay and keep a reasonably healthy economy intact. It’s the major source for now and subject to risk for pricing in the future, which risks the whole of the world’s economy.

Next would be biomass sources as in methanol and ethanol.  Both are, or can be used with existing consumer products in fuel mixes, the infrastructure is already partly in place and the carbon cycle is current, using airborne CO2 and returning it for reuse.  Light alcohols are undeniably energy positive, although much calculation gives wide variations.  Light alcohols also are candidates for Direct Alcohol Fuel Cells that should offer simple and cheap means to get from fuel to electricity to motion.

Hydrogen, liquefied or stored as a gas, could be burned in internal combustion engines with little engine modification, but quite large portable and stationary storage costs are required.  Hydrogen must also be ‘made,’ requiring energy and capital, for water electrolysis and then cryogenic storage or very high-pressure vessels or media to hold the hydrogen that use energy to function.

Ammonia then is interesting as it is a storage media with the ability to be both burned or used in a fuel cell.  Ammonia holds 18% hydrogen by mass, more than cryogenically formed liquid hydrogen, and far beyond what sensible compression technology allows in comparable volumes.  Is easy to store and stable.  But:

Ammonia is a noxious, caustic vapor at room temperature requiring pressure and cooling to past 8 atmospheres for liquid containment at less energy by volume than ethanol or methanol.  The hydrogen can be freed from ammonia as needed by catalysis at 500º C or simply be burned.  Yet burning usually leaves 20% unburned and produces nitrous oxides, problems that technology should fix and exploit handily given time and resources.

There are more interesting pathways.  The Danish Technical University is developing a system called “Amminex.”  Amminex is an ammonia-based solid-state hydrogen storage solution: a tablet that can be held in your hand. The tablet is a metal ammine complex that stores 9.1% hydrogen by weight in the form of ammonia absorbed efficiently in magnesium chloride: Mg(NH3)6Cl2. The storage is completely reversible, and by adding an ammonia decomposition catalyst, hydrogen can be delivered at temperatures below 347º C (656º F). The tablets can be recharged with additional ammonia.  The team is finding that the kinetics of ammonia adsorption and desorption with the metal ammine complexes are reversible and fast, and that the complex is simple to manufacture and easy to handle.

A company called U3K has patented technology (USPTO 7,140,187) (the link has lapsed) can convert urea (in a white solid form) to either ammonia or hydrogen for delivery to internal combustion engines and fuel cells in stationary or mobile applications.  U3K’s system can provide internal combustion engines with ammonia or fuel cells with hydrogen “on demand.”

Urea Molecule 3D Balls CO(NH2)2

U3K’s claimed urea advantages are it is non-toxic, clean burning, non-explosive, and is more economical than refined petroleum products. Urea can fit into the existing liquid based fueling infrastructure. Existing engines can be retrofit cheaply. The capital cost of urea fueling stations is significantly less than the cost of existing gasoline stations. With current urea manufacturing technology, urea has a “well to wheel” efficiency that exceeds gasoline. And urea can be stored as a solid or a liquid.

So far we know that H2 can be effectively stored using alcohols, ammonia and to be complete, natural gas methane.  From a system perspective methane is entrenched, both for fuel in homes, cars and electricity generation.  Light alcohols are gradually becoming competitive without supports from government.  Ammonia is still far underdeveloped.

For burning or oxidizing ammonia is at a disadvantage.  But when considered from a fuel cell perspective ammonia has advantages.  For systems development, ammonia might have a powerful role in stranded or isolated wind or solar installations as the concentration level is superior.  Electrolysis can be comparatively efficient from a financial perspective when the cost of transmission lines is considered.  Flowing ammonia vapor or liquid might be a low cost way to move stored energy in hydrogen.

At the use end all the fuels must be one means or another be stripped of the carbon or nitrogen atoms and in some fuels oxygen for the fuel cells to use the hydrogen.  This step is where the crux of the competition may lie.  Last year saw a paper in Science magazine reveal an alternative to stripping out the oxygen that might work across alcohols and for air batteries.  Further checking shows that paths are being blazed to strip the hydrogen off fuels both in a process step and during the operation of some fuel cell designs.  Lab units seem expensive, but with material development, commercial scale, and fuel price considerations, all of the light carbon based and ammonia fuels look like contenders.

Ammonia has an incredible advantage, the energy source could be free sunlight or dirt-cheap solar or wind.  The alcohols need land surface area.  Straight hydrogen is a devil to handle and contain.  Methane is abundant now, but over time as more use is made of it the price will rise.

The key in ammonia and its disadvantage is the lack of any carbon, which adds to the energy content.  There is little expectation that ammonia as a combustion motor fuel will make a market for itself on the merits.  For fuel cell use the field is still pretty wide open, but the bio-based alcohols head start has made great strides.

From an electrical power generator to ammonia then on to fueling power generation ammonia makes sense.  But can the economic case be made until fuel cell progress promotes demand?

The answer is ammonia can be a viable fuel.  The next question is will the research and development make economic competitiveness possible.


28 Comments so far

  1. Al Fin on February 16, 2010 9:23 AM

    Whatever the potential of ammonia as fuel, it owes nothing to Simmons — who never had an original idea in his life.

  2. FFA: Preparing the next generation of America's leaders | Farm and … | Educational Ohio on February 17, 2010 11:28 PM

    […] Can Ammonia aka NH3 Be a Fuel? | New Energy and Fuel […]

  3. Alph on February 17, 2010 11:50 PM

    I’m not too keen on having lots of Ammonia around. Gasoline is bad enough, but whew, enough ammonia will ruin your day.

  4. dghn on February 26, 2010 4:52 PM
  5. mel on May 12, 2010 12:23 PM

    very nice.
    amminex system is very interesting for using hydrogen in industry.
    cement and glass production systems have a real green prospective.

  6. richard on May 13, 2010 2:14 AM

    the beauty of producing ammonia from stranded wind is that it could be used locally to produce fertilizer, the production of which is currently a major consumer of natural gas. The displaced natural gas can then be used more appropriately as transportation fuel and for the generation of electric power.

  7. richard on May 13, 2010 2:23 AM

    It also goes without saying that the abundance of inexpensive fertilizer produced from stranded wind would likely boost the bottom line for the biofuel industry. In addition, there is a synergy between the “corn belt” and the “wind belt” in the USA, such that fertilizer could be easily manufactured at the point of use, thus reducing the cost of transporting ammonia and fertilizer.

  8. Jack on July 22, 2010 12:57 PM


  9. ong on August 3, 2010 1:43 AM

    Could anybody explain me about how to use NH3 as fuel energy please?

    Please contact me by my mail….. .

    Thank you; Best Regards

  10. tchibo gutschein on August 3, 2010 9:21 PM

    🙂 cool!

  11. Polar Watches on October 12, 2010 10:22 AM

    I like to have a break during the my day and browse through some blogs to see what others are saying. This weblog appeared in my search and I couldn’t help but clicking on it. I am glad I did because it was a very enjoyable read.

  12. richard harding on October 12, 2010 3:30 PM

    one blogger, i think i ran across him on “daily kos” is advocating using excess wind energy in the plains states (“stranded wind”) to make ammonia fertilizer. This would certainly help to offset fossil fuel use in the manufacture of fertilizer, which is a very energy intensive process.

  13. JimW on October 19, 2010 1:49 PM has been making zero carbon fuel from wind for couple of years. On the farm they can use extra NH3 for N fertilizer.Mr Simmons was talking with about joint venture but unfortunately died in August. All vehicles and planes can use and create no carbon footprint for less cost.

  14. scholarships for women on November 8, 2010 9:52 AM

    Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

  15. alan ward on February 13, 2011 5:08 PM

    , the above at nodes.making ethanol good for planes carbon neutral only and use the above for storage, for cars and use redox flow batteries for base load and redox gell cars, and thorium for for experimental reactors to burn nuclear pollutants and replace coal and or other, renewables used to do so, then furnace for steel coaching using renewable energy, not coal then put in cement and or charcoal or soil and or if only used for a limited intense use of geo sequestration, technology, may then be practical if organized. one other thing replace nano carbon tubes or horns or spirals or bamboo, to replace totally platinum in fuel cells and iron too,can do, and or proteins.

  16. Haywood Rochin on May 22, 2011 4:40 PM

    Hello, this is my first time i visit here. I found so many interesting in your blog especially on how to determine the topic. keep up the good work.

  17. Alejandro Booe on September 1, 2011 1:11 PM

    I would like to say “wow” what a inspiring post. This is really great. Keep doing what you’re doing!!

  18. Monte Gowler on September 15, 2011 7:07 PM

    Awesome post. I so good to see someone taking the time to share this information

  19. Dave Bertagna on September 16, 2011 6:10 PM

    This post makes a lot of sense !

  20. Jake on October 4, 2011 10:18 PM

    In order to use Ammonia in a fuel cell, which type of fuel cell is required? Is it the PEM fuel cells that are most likely to power fuel cell cars, or is it a different kind of cell?

  21. Ammonia As A Fuel | All about Green Living on April 28, 2012 4:18 AM

    […] According to Green NH3, ammonia costs less; is easier to produce, handle and distribute and is safer. If all this is true, why hydrogen is stealing the limelight is curious; but I guess the devil is in the detail – ammonia is rather dangerous stuff if an accident does occur and the nitrous oxide is also a concern.   The other potential application for ammonia is in fuel cells, as it holds 18% hydrogen by mass – and this would get around the nitrous oxide issue.   While I still think electric cars recharged by renewable sources such as wind and solar power are the way we need to go, the potential of ammonia as a “green” fuel is fascinating given it can be used in the cars we drive today.   If you’d like to learn more, here are a couple of links:  NH3 Fuel AssociationIowa Energy Center […]

  22. Ammonia – a viable, more environmentally alternative fuel? | Green Living Tips on November 17, 2012 10:33 PM

    […]  If you’d like to learn more, here are a couple of links:  NH3 Fuel Association Iowa Energy Center Michael Bloch Green Living Article reproduction guidelines   […]

  23. Psiberzerker on December 4, 2012 12:44 PM

    The only problem I have with Ammonia as a fuel is what it is, and where it comes from. Nitrogen is about as common as air, in it’s N2 diatom, but theis is a lowest energy state, like Water (but not as much) so in order to “Fix” it for fuel, first you have to put enough energy in to break at least some of those 3 bonds that’re holding them together. You can electrolyze them, just like H2/O, but that energy has to come from somewhere, and you can’t even break even. (2nd law of thermodynamics.) otherwise, industrial sources of Ammonia are extremely dirty, the only remotely “Green” thing about them is the noxious neon hue of some of them. Fix that, and you can make Ammonia a viable fuel.

    Other than that, it’s fairly ideal. I’d put it in the tank, just like gas, and run it through a fuel cell to make sure it makes 2NH3+O2=>4H2O+N2 instead of nitrous oxides, then run hub motors off the energy.

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  26. John Pierce on August 27, 2014 3:12 PM

    Stop Complaining About High Gas Prices, Do Something !!! Please Sign Petition #Gas 50 Cents #Litre

  27. Emily on July 20, 2015 9:34 PM

    I have never thought ammonia could be fuel. You point out great points here. Thanks lots for this post.

  28. Tilda on January 9, 2018 5:36 PM

    Does this suggest we can make fuel from urine?

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