First as Norwegian polymath Kristian Birkeland's baby, Norsk Hydro; then as the world's largest nitrogen wrangler, mainly for fertilizer but also a hundred other uses; and most recently as a leader, competing with Rolls-Royce, in the race to design and deploy autonomous ships. Now this.
From the journal Science, July 12, 2018:
SYDNEY, BRISBANE, AND MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—The ancient, arid landscapes of Australia are fertile ground for new growth, says Douglas MacFarlane, a chemist at Monash University in suburban Melbourne: vast forests of windmills and solar panels. More sunlight per square meter strikes the country than just about any other, and powerful winds buffet its south and west coasts. All told, Australia boasts a renewable energy potential of 25,000 gigawatts, one of the highest in the world and about four times the planet's installed electricity production capacity. Yet with a small population and few ways to store or export the energy, its renewable bounty is largely untapped.Combined with the corn that fixes its own nitrogen, "Can We Grow One of the World's Largest Food Crops Without Fertilizer?" it appears there are big doings in the nitrogen biz.
That's where MacFarlane comes in. For the past 4 years, he has been working on a fuel cell that can convert renewable electricity into a carbon-free fuel: ammonia. Fuel cells typically use the energy stored in chemical bonds to make electricity; MacFarlane's operates in reverse. In his third-floor laboratory, he shows off one of the devices, about the size of a hockey puck and clad in stainless steel. Two plastic tubes on its backside feed it nitrogen gas and water, and a power cord supplies electricity. Through a third tube on its front, it silently exhales gaseous ammonia, all without the heat, pressure, and carbon emissions normally needed to make the chemical. "This is breathing nitrogen in and breathing ammonia out," MacFarlane says, beaming like a proud father.
Companies around the world already produce $60 billion worth of ammonia every year, primarily as fertilizer, and MacFarlane's gizmo may allow them to make it more efficiently and cleanly. But he has ambitions to do much more than help farmers. By converting renewable electricity into an energy-rich gas that can easily be cooled and squeezed into a liquid fuel, MacFarlane's fuel cell effectively bottles sunshine and wind, turning them into a commodity that can be shipped anywhere in the world and converted back into electricity or hydrogen gas to power fuel cell vehicles. The gas bubbling out of the fuel cell is colorless, but environmentally, MacFarlane says, ammonia is as green as can be. "Liquid ammonia is liquid energy," he says. "It's the sustainable technology we need."
Ammonia—one nitrogen atom bonded to three hydrogen atoms—may not seem like an ideal fuel: The chemical, used in household cleaners, smells foul and is toxic. But its energy density by volume is nearly double that of liquid hydrogen—its primary competitor as a green alternative fuel—and it is easier to ship and distribute. "You can store it, ship it, burn it, and convert it back into hydrogen and nitrogen," says Tim Hughes, an energy storage researcher with manufacturing giant Siemens in Oxford, U.K. "In many ways, it's ideal."
Researchers around the globe are chasing the same vision of an "ammonia economy," and Australia is positioning itself to lead it. "It's just beginning," says Alan Finkel, Australia's chief scientist who is based in Canberra. Federal politicians have yet to offer any major legislation in support of renewable ammonia, Finkel says, perhaps understandable in a country long wedded to exporting coal and natural gas. But last year, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency declared that creating an export economy for renewables is one of its priorities. This year, the agency announced AU$20 million in initial funds to support renewable export technologies, including shipping ammonia.
***Yara is taking a first step toward greening that process with a pilot plant, set to open in 2019, that will sit next to the existing Pilbara factory. Instead of relying on natural gas to make H2, the new add-on will feed power from a 2.5-megawatt solar array into a bank of electrolyzers, which split water into H2 and O2. The facility will still rely on the Haber-Bosch reaction to combine the hydrogen with nitrogen to make ammonia. But the solar-powered hydrogen source cuts total CO2 emissions from the process roughly in half....MUCH MORE
A few of our Birkeland/Norsk Hydro/Yara posts:
That Time A Dozen Norwegians Stopped the Nazis From Developing the Atom Bomb and Possibly Saved Europe
The $100M Synthetic Biology Bet From Bayer and Ginko Bioworks (YAR:Oslo; CF)
Shipping: He May Not Have Received His Nobel Prizes But The World's First Fully Electric Autonomous Container Ship Will Be Called the Birkeland