I’ve talked about ammonia and its industrial uses, as well as how it compares to other renewable energy sources. Legacy companies are investing heavily in projects related to ammonia conversion—MAN Energy Solutions and Wartsila are two European energy entities that are betting heavily on ammonia. In the US, though, the innovation appears to be happening at the startup level. Disruptor-style ammonia conversion technologies are reaching the testing stage, and the capital to support these businesses is pouring in.
A Refresher Course in Ammonia
Let’s review. Liquid ammonia holds twice as much hydrogen by volume as liquid hydrogen. It’s as safe as gasoline and safer than propane. Ammonia is already produced at high levels globally—200 million tons a year. Also, it is transported like natural gas—through pipelines, tankers, and trucks. So it’s cheap and available. Ammonia is much easier to store than hydrogen—you can store it at room temperature in huge cargo ship storage tanks.
For you in the TLDR crowd, here’s the deal. Ammonia is the direct line for hydrogen power as the end game in clean energy.
So, why doesn’t your car run on Mr. Clean? Because, for the moment, converting ammonia to fuel is not a green endeavor. It involves a heat catalyst for conversion, which is not exactly a carbon-neutral process. However, startups are working on technologies that conduct the cracking process without emitting greenhouse gases.
What’s cracking with ammonia conversion? Johnson-Matthey defines it this way:
“The process by which ammonia is decomposed towards hydrogen and nitrogen over a catalyst (based on base or pgm metals). It’s typically used in applications where hydrogen is needed as either an energy source or to form downstream manufacturing processes.”
By the way, Johnson-Matthey is a British chemicals company that’s been in business since ten minutes after the War of 1812.
Let’s look at what some companies are up to.
Amogy is a Brooklyn-based startup that’s the current golden child in this sector. In three rounds of funding, they’ve raised $69.1 million (about to announce another round to put them over $200M). SK Innovation, the largest oil refinery in South Korea, kicked in the lion’s share, $30 million. Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund and Saudi-based Aramco Energy are the other big investors in Amogy.
Amogy’s—my spellcheck desperately wants it to be Emoji, which could mean something, I don’t know—mission is to develop a “zero emission mobility” product that eliminates greenhouse gases in the transportation industry, beginning with maritime shipping.
Their goal is to manufacture clean ammonia by more or less revamping it into a sustainable fuel with new ammonia conversion technology for the cracking process that converts the ammonia into hydrogen. Then they’re going to transport that hydrogen into a fuel cell that powers the ship. This works as a fuel option on oil tankers and the like because the density of liquid ammonia is about three times greater than compressed hydrogen. From a chemical perspective, this greater density allows for a lot more nautical miles per gallon.
Here’s the thing about this theory—Amogy is making it work. I’m not exactly sure how much pollution large agricultural equipment spews out. But I would imagine, to put it technically, it’s a boatload. Last June (2022), they tested a zero-emissions, ammonia-powered John Deere tractor. Amogy had converted the diesel engine in the mid-size farm ride—and that’s a highly relative term; this puppy is the size of a couple of Hummers, and you can’t even find a price on the internet—into an ammonia/hydrogen-fueled power bomb that runs a 100 kW fuel cell.
I honestly don’t know what’s more fascinating about this—an ammonia-powered tractor or the fact that there was a tractor in Brooklyn.
Amogy CEO and co-founder Seonghoon Woo is one of an army of ammonia aficionados that MIT is cranking out and has partnered Amogy with shipping and manufacturing in heavy industries. The idea is to scale the technology so that it is financially practical to the point that it can get a foothold in that particular market.
For his next trick, Woo tested a cracked ammonia/hydrogen engine on a semi-truck (this time at Stony Brook) with a 300 kW system that generated 900 kW of energy for the truck. They’ve also used the technology to power a drone, and their latest project is a tugboat—the first step to clean shipping.
Starfire is a joint venture with the Colorado School of Mines in Boulder. They’ve recently completed a second round of funding, generating capital from Samsung Ventures, AP Ventures, Chevron, Mitsubishi Heavy Industry, and Pavilion Capital, among other investors. This round netted Starfire $24 million to build a modular, cost-effective net-zero cracking system.
Starfire has two ammonia conversion-related technologies in the hopper: Rapid Ramp and Prometheus Fire.
Rapid Ramp limits its sources to air, water, and renewables for producing green ammonia—a carbon-free compound. Starfire is using modular systems to create stand-alone operations worldwide, specifically for grid storage, the maritime and mining sectors, and industrial heat. Rapid Ramp does precisely that—ramps ammonia production up quickly and then back down as needed—so it meets intermittent energy needs.
There’s no need for hydrogen storage because the process delivers a cheap and easily transportable alternative to fossil fuels. Starfire is looking to replace natural gas, diesel, and bunker fuel. The latter two burn really dirty, so there should be a ready market for what’s fundamentally a portable system.
One of the toughest nuts to crack with the cracking process is how to conduct the conversion without using super high heat. Starfire’s Prometheus Fire project is doing just that; cracking at lower temperatures is possible and does produce a cost-effective ammonia/hydrogen blend. This technology repurposes turbine heat exhaust. But a second technology, Prometheus Hydrogen, is designed for hydrogen fuel cell applications.
Potential Future Benefits of Ammonia Conversion From Starfire
These two complementary technologies tick two of the ammonia challenge boxes—green ammonia and carbon-friendlier cracking. The old-school way to create ammonia, the Haber-Bosch process, simply burns the catalyst until the ammonia is created. The agility of the Rapid Ramp system could be the disruptor that signifies the end of Haber-Bosch and brown (carbon emission) ammonia.
Starfire is also touting its relatively cheap cost of use. We’ve already established that ammonia is a lot easier to store; it’s also cheaper. Storing ammonia for 15 days costs $0.06 per kg of hydrogen; the same volume of hydrogen runs around $8 at just 150 psi.
The game plan is to install systems near EV fueling stations so they can store ammonia and then crack it near the points of distribution.
They’re also betting that the Rapid Ramp system, which works in conjunction with offshore wind power, has the potential to be a game-changer in shipping. Since they are essentially building cracking Legos, the product is wildly scalable—they have eliminated the need for individual engineering. This reduces production costs by an average of 10-20% when customers buy multiple units.
GenCell isn’t a startup anymore; it went public in 2020 with an IPO of $240 million. The primary investors pre-IPO were BNP Paribas Energy Transition Fund, TDK Ventures, Harel Insurance Investors, and Meitav Investment House. They raised about $60 million over six funding rounds, one of which was post-IPO.
Their focus is on replacing diesel engines with ammonia-fueled power. GenCell has patented a cracking technology, GenCellFOX, that produces hydrogen on demand. The company claims that a 12-ton ammonia storage tank can create enough hydrogen fuel to run constantly for one year. Companies that deploy 1,000 FOXes can save $250 million over diesel engines.
The target market for GenCell is in off-the-grid applications—stuff like putting effective cell towers in rural and remote areas. On a larger societal note, they’re offering backup power to the utility markets, homeland security, healthcare, and other niche markets that can’t afford any power loss.
They’re also trying to penetrate the market for industrial generators with an ammonia-based alternative to diesel or hydrogen. A good start was in 2017 when GenCell G5rx generators helped bring Mexico City back online after that massive earthquake (7.1 on the Richter scale).
Their Ammonia Conversion Process
How did the system work? Here’s a simple rundown of the process.
The cracker only takes a couple of hours or so to power itself up. Once it warms up, hydrogen production begins immediately. GenCell is continuing to fine-tune the technology to shorten that start-up time.
The generator pops an immediate burst of power to the circuit breaker, keeping the autoreclosers online until the grid comes back up. This sends more consistent power to the end user, extending the battery life of legacy backup battery systems to 40 hours or more, depending on whether it’s the only backup power source. The physical structure of the system works so well during natural disasters because they have built in a shelter that repels high-voltage interference, electromagnetic pulses, and earthquakes.
GenCell is also betting that ammonia power is more reliable than wind or solar, and I’ll have to give them that point. The wind doesn’t always blow, and solar panels aren’t as efficient when the wind does blow dust and sand—they lose about 85% of their performance. On the other hand, ammonia is fairly weather-proof, so power customers know it’s always available.
GenCell is an Israeli company. But it has offices and distribution centers in North and South America and Europe.
I’ve given you three great examples of how ammonia-as-fuel is working in real-world applications. I think that they all represent key sectors of the energy sector—mid-range transportation, long-haul transportation, and power grid backups. When I really look at the data on both the ammonia conversion technologies and the startups that are at the forefront of creating better clean energy, I’m gonna be honest—I’m kind of a huge fan.