Ammonia For Fuel Update

October 18, 2011 | 6 Comments

The 8th Annual NH3 Fuel Conference held back in September has some interesting results worth a look and some thought.  So far, Brian Wang at NextBigFuture has a write up with long quotes and some good links to set up a post.  The prize though is “Nuclear Ammonia – A Sustainable Nuclear Renaissance’s ‘Killer Ap’” from Darryl Siemer, Idaho National Lab (retired), with Kirk Sorensen, FLiBe Energy, and Bob Hargraves, Institute for Lifelong Education at Dartmouth College.  At 114 pages it covers the concept pretty thoroughly.

First a refresher on the hard facts ammonia holds for transportation fuels:

  • Ammonia is the most practical and likely viable liquid alternative fuel that can be man made from simply water, air and an electric energy source.
  • Ammonia is energy dense, about that same as methanol and 50% more energy than liquid hydrogen by volume.  It’s a hydrogen carrier – a way to use hydrogen easily stored at low pressure and in liquid form by using a nitrogen atom.
  • Ammonia can be used directly in fuel cells, internal combustion engines, and combustion turbines. It is straightforward and inexpensive to convert existing engines and turbines. Engine conversion kits are commercially available now.
  • Ammonia is easy to store, deliver, and dispense. An extensive ammonia distribution pipeline network some 3000 miles long in the U.S. infrastructure already exists.
  • Ammonia is already used at a significant scale, 130 million tons worldwide each year with the U.S. using 22 million tons for fertilizer.

Hydrogen Heating Value Comparison. Click image for the largest view.

The conference and the Nuclear Ammonia paper propose to scale up ammonia usage by about one hundred times.  Before we look further lets get clear on what is meant by “nuclear ammonia”.  It’s simply to use nuclear energy to split out the hydrogen in water and rebond it with nitrogen so it’s a fuel instead of water. This isn’t real complex.  The problem lies incoming up with the electricity to do the water splitting.

The thought experiment that’s been taking place this past year by the NH3 folks has some useful notes:

  • Special and small engine applications and aviation will still require CxHx-based fuels because the tanks will need to hold pressure and be a bit heavier.
  • It’s possible to synthesize a ‘CxHx’ (methanol, DME, diesel, etc.) liquid fuel supply from freed “nuclear” hydrogen and any carbon source.

But, and it’s a major but:

Is providing the carbon required to make all of the synfuel likely to be needed.  There’s only one carbon atom in a carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide molecule.  The CO2 in the atmosphere is a small bit of 1% while nitrogen is about 80%.

Of the materials we use in huge mass, coal is 858 thousand metric tons annually (MT/A), oil is 984 MT/A, natural gas is 403 MT/A, while things like cement are 100 MT/A and steel is 93 MT/A.  It’s a long way to the smaller number for the next big item in the list, which is – ammonia – at 22 MT/A.  Substituting ammonia is going to need a lot of hydrogen split out of water to make up for all that fossil fuel.

So – the folks have figured it would take about 613 full-size (~1 GWe) reactors for the ammonia and 100 reactors for the CHx synfuel. About 7 times more than the U.S. has today.

As you can imagine, the resistance to that is going to be substantial.  Much of the rest of ‘Nuclear Ammonia’ is dedicated to just how thorium fueled reactors can get the job done – but that is a post or more in its own right and your humble writer is getting to that.

The point needs stated in the meantime.  NH3 or ammonia is a fully viable technology for a hydrogen economy.  Coming up with the free hydrogen is the issue and is the first issue whenever hydrogen in any form is considered.  Once a low enough cost for free hydrogen exists, ammonia would be foremost in any sensible thought.  That would mark the end of the oil age.


6 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on October 18, 2011 7:57 AM

    Desalinated sea water could provide both the Hydrogen – and the carbon. The CO2 disolved in sea water is much higher than atmospheric CO2.

    The US Navy is already studying the possibility of producing Jet Fuel using power from their nuclear carriers and the updated Fischer Tropsch process.

  2. JP Straley on October 18, 2011 8:15 AM

    I’ve seen personally what happens when you breach a tank of liquid ammonia. Very dangerous.

    Consider urea, NH2-CO-NH2. Benign to store, quickly convertible to ammonia.

    JP Straley

  3. JohnMc on October 18, 2011 4:10 PM

    Have to be frank here. If `Nuclear Ammonia…` was considered the top entry, shame. Though it has its better points its long on scare and thin on facts. The “Green Revolution” as a whole has shot its wad by misrepresentation, scandal, misappropriation and political intriguer.

    A) Cheap because its nuclear. Heard this one before. Back in the 40’s and 50’s they were saying the electricity would be so cheap it would not be worth installing meters. Heh.

    B) Anhydrous ammonia is a deadly chemical. Probably no more than gasoline, but it is not benign.

    C) I would say the projected CHx peak estimates are way off by at least a factor of 2x.

    Interesting? Yes. On par as a well researched paper? No. First year grad level.

    But thanks.

  4. Janja on October 25, 2011 1:25 AM

    I’m sorry but why would trillions in new infrastructure, conversions, or new engines be worth it? Surely we could just plow a small fraction into developing a better battery or something with NO mew infrastructre needed unless there are too many electric cars.

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