Home FinanceEnergy & Environment A Key To The ‘Hydrogen Economy’ Is Carbon-Free Ammonia

A Key To The ‘Hydrogen Economy’ Is Carbon-Free Ammonia

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If you’ve been even remotely paying attention to the electric energy arena in the past year or two, you have likely been hearing an increasing amount of discussion concerning the hydrogen economy.  It seems that every other day, there is a big announcement from yet another global player jumping into green hydrogen or amplifying an existing commitment.  Hydrogen (H2 – the hydrogen atoms like to travel together) is the most abundant element in the universe, and its combustion results in water as a byproduct.  It can be utilized in sectors of the economy that have been hard to decarbonize, such as steelmaking and marine transport.  It may also serve as a long-term storage medium in the power industry. As a consequence, governments and industries around the world are increasingly focusing their efforts on building out the infrastructure necessary to support a hydrogen economy.

Based on the growing drumbeat of the media, it would sometimes seem that cost-effective green hydrogen will be here any day now, and that we will soon have successfully addressed all of the technical challenges related to the production, transportation, storage, and utilization of H2. 

In truth, though, many challenges remain to building out a hydrogen economy, including processes related to producing carbon-free hydrogen in the first place.  Among the other major barriers to the widespread utilization of hydrogen are the ability to move and store it prior to its end use applications (generally either through direct combustion or fuel cells that convert it to electricity).  In fact, it was in recognition of these challenges that the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently released its Hydrogen Program Plan.  

Moving H2

Hydrogen can be moved (and stored) in one of four ways.  It can be trucked as a pressurized gas (though better containment vessels will be needed to enable shipping of larger volumes at higher pressures).  It can be transported in specialized and expensive pipelines (hydrogen embrittles steel pipelines so they won’t do the job unless the hydrogen is mixed with methane.  Hydrogen is also a simple molecule and ‘likes’ to escape, so pipelines will need to be specially engineered to prevent loss).  H2 can be shipped in tankers as a liquid – which can increase tanker load by 5X over pressurized shipments, (but that involves high costs and uses about 35% of the total energy content to liquefy the hydrogen to -425 °F).  

Finally, hydrogen can also be moved in the form of chemical carriers.  It can be moved in liquid organic carriers (such as methylcyclohexane – MCH) that absorb or release hydrogen by means of chemical reactions, and in liquid inorganic carriers (that is, lacking any carbon-hydrogen bonds), such as ammonia (NH3).

And the latter approach is where players like Israeli company GenCell Energy and Japanese multinational TDK come into the picture.  The two are planning on offering an ammonia-based solution to the broader marketplace, using GenCell’s expertise in fuel cells, combined with TDK’s industrial brawn and global market reach.  I had an opportunity in November to speak with Rami Reshef, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of GenCell, and Dai Matsuoka, Chief Technology Officer at TDK, to get a sense of their future plans in the growing hydrogen economy. 

Rocket science

Reshef – whose company recently went public on the Israeli stock exchange, raising $61 million – has been focused on hydrogen and fuel cells for decades.  GenCell was founded in 2011.  For much of the company’s history, it has been focused on developing and producing alkaline fuel cells.  Its team includes many veterans from the American Apollo and Russian Mir space programs – where fuel cells were deployed to create water and generate both heat and electricity to power the space capsules.  

Upon launching the company, Reshef commented “we realized immediately there were two key challenges preventing this technology from becoming mainstream.  The technology built for space was built to be bullet-proof and was therefore too expensive.  And the catalyst was from platinum and palladium.”  So the first step towards achieving commercialization was to reduce the costs, by stripping platinum and palladium out, and developing a platinum-free catalyst in their development of an alkaline fuel cell.  

A bigger challenge, he observed, was – and continues to be – the lack of hydrogen infrastructure.  “You cannot find hydrogen on the street corner.  So we decided we needed to look into a solution to bring hydrogen to the customer.”  The GenCell team ultimately determined that ammonia was the ticket to making that happen.  In large part, that made sense simply because of the volumes involved.  Ammonia is the second most widely used inorganic chemical in the world, with a global consumption level that Reshef estimated at 180 million tons per year.  With ammonia, he commented, “The fuel is there.  You have one atom of nitrogen and three atoms of hydrogen bonded together, and the cost of ammonia is cheaper than diesel.”  And, he emphasized, “It’s completely carbon free.”  

Having identified ammonia as the optimal carrier, the question then became how to extract the hydrogen from the ammonia in an economically efficient manner.  To address that challenge, the company developed a cracking device that extracts hydrogen from the ammonia, releasing surplus nitrogen into the atmosphere while the remaining hydrogen is fed into the adjacent fuel cell. A key competitive advantage of GenCell’s cracker is its ability to use only a small part of the energy from the reaction itself to drive the continued cracking process, meaning no grid power is required in the process.

Finding a green “well-to-wheel” solution

The next challenge to be addressed had to do with the sourcing of the actual ammonia itself.  If the ammonia is created using the carbon-intensive Haber Bosch process, as is typically the case, one still has the issue of the associated upstream carbon emissions, even if the fuel cell itself releases nothing but water. 

Reshef termed this, the “well-to-wheel” issue and asserted that GenCell’s team anticipates finding a solution to that problem in the next five years.  To that end, the company’s material scientists are now focused on developing a catalyst that can break water into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms, and then add nitrogen from the atmosphere to create ammonia.  “Then,” Reshef said, “we can say from well-to-wheel we are a 100% green solution.” 

Gencell’s ultimate goal is to present that solution in an affordable manner to provide power to the 50% of the globe’s populations that are hamstrung by energy poverty, including the roughy one billion individuals with no access to any electricity at all.  Reshef indicated that one advantage here is that many of the affected countries already have fairly strong agricultural economies with relatively well-established infrastructures for ammonia.  GenCell’s will thus be able to piggy-back on systems that already exist, so that it will ultimately be able to offer carbon-free electricity at an affordable price.  

In these markets, GenCell is targeting its ammonia-based off-grid solution to support high-value remote applications in need of continuous power such as rural medical clinics and remote telecom towers.  

The developed economies offer other market opportunities as well, such as transportation.  If the global growth in electric vehicles (EVs) unfolds as forecast, with tens and eventually of hundreds of millions sold across world markets, the power grid may increasingly be stressed.  In this instance, Reshef suggested, localized power generation from fuel cells may provide the answer.  To avoid high hydrogen infrastructure costs,  ammonia could be placed in tanks at the filling stations we use today, extracted on the spot and converted to hydrogen, either for direct use in fuel cell vehicles or converted to electricity for EVs.

TDK’s role

All of this paints a compelling vision.  So how did TDK enter the picture and where does the industrial giant fit?  Matsuoka related that TDK and GenCell started conversations in 2017 to explore the possibilities of collaborating.  GenCell would add to TDK’s materials science know-how, while TDK would offer its manufacturing strength and global market presence.  TDK already has an existing business in power management systems and was manufacturing lithium ion batteries, so this was in some ways an extension of the company’s existing focus and its ongoing internal transformation to focus more on energy and digital technologies.  

The two entities committed to starting a new venture, with TDK providing a modest amount of capital while planning for a larger role going forward.  Matsuoka commented “For the future hydrogen world, TDK has to get involved…The H2 world will come, and TDK needs to prepare for the future together with GenCell.”

He observed that Japan’s Prime Minster recently committed the country to being carbon neutral by 2050, which would further strengthen domestic market opportunities.  Japan is already one of the leading hydrogen energy economies in the world (as a symbol of that commitment, the 2021 Tokyo Olympic flame will burn hydrogen), and Matsuoka predicted that ammonia is going to become an important energy resource in the country.

He also commented that as the demand for GenCell’s ammonia crackers and fuel cells heats up, TDK will be well-positioned to deliver the manufacturing capability, and called attention to the company’s production capabilities. “Do you know the audio tapes?” He asked (of course, almost anybody over the age of 50 remembers those TDK cassette tapes very well). “We can make those in 0.5 seconds.” 

How fast might the hydrogen and ammonia transition occur?  Reshef suggested that it may happen sooner than many observers think.  “We are making our first steps in the markets, in Europe and Japan…And in 2022 we will be commercialized, and in five to seven years after that full well-to-wheel.  In the next few years we have the wheel – meaning the generation.”  

Within the decade, his hope is that the two companies will have the entire ammonia-based and carbon-free chain developed, with the solution increasingly popular in the marketplace, “like batteries are today.”  Of course, there are multiple challenges ahead, and the use cases may well change.  However, GenCell has already overcome many major hurdles and now that they are teamed up with TDK, it’s a vision well worth observing to see how it may unfold in the months and years to come.

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