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Fossil-Fuel Free Ammonia Process Produces Fuel from Air

Fossil-Fuel Free Ammonia Process Produces Fuel from Air

Image source: flickr.com/photos/sylvar

One of the fuels of the future could come from thin air, if a new technology pans out for producing ammonia from the atmosphere, without the need for any fossil-fuel feedstocks.

While it’s mostly known for its use in agriculture as a fertilizer, ammonia (NH3) can be also be used as a cleaning agent, a refrigerant and as a fuel, powering engines such as that in the retrofitted Toyota GT86-R Marangoni Eco Explorer. But producing ammonia can be energy- and resource-intensive, most often created through heating coal or natural gas to use as a source for hydrogen, and then reacting it with atmospheric nitrogen.

A new process for making ammonia production cleaner and less energy-intensive is in the works from engineer John Holbrook, which uses hydrogen drawn from water vapor as one of the feedstocks in what is called Solid State Ammonia Synthesis, or SSAS.

“Imagine a world where cars, trucks, and airplanes run on a fuel made from water and air–a fuel that when burned converts back into water and air, with no CO2 emissions. Imagine a world where electricity is converted into fuel for internal combustion engines, fuel for jet engines, fuel to make more electricity. Imagine a world free of imported petroleum for transportation and power. Imagine a world where farmers produce their own fertilizer, plus power their heavy equipment, from wind and solar electricity.” – NHThree

According to the company’s website, the use of SASS could overcome issues related to renewable energy, including enabling load leveling and creating an off-peak electrical demand (excess wind power could be used to produce ammonia for storage and use later when needed). In fact, they’re predicting that SASS could be the “killer app” for optimizing the use of clean power sources to reduce fossil fuel dependence.

“In SSAS, a proton-conducting membrane is heated to about 550 C. Nitrogen is admitted to one side of the membrane and water vapor is admitted to the other side, under conditions of equalized pressure to drive the reaction. The water vapor dissociates into protons and oxygen, an external voltage drives the protons through the membrane, and the nitrogen and protons react on the nitrogen side of the membrane to form NH3. The lower energy consumption of the SSAS process suggests that it will be able to produce ammonia at a lower cost than the Haber-Bosch process, with the obvious environmental advantage of not using fossil fuel feedstock.” – NHThree

Due to the abundance of both of the feed materials, air and water, ammonia produced by the SASS method could help to bring yet another alternative fuel to the global marketplace. According to New Scientist, ammonia may be a promising piece of the energy equation:

“Ammonia is not well known, but it’s one of the few places I’ve looked that there is a really promising alternative being worked on.

There’s unlimited nitrogen in the air, and there’s unlimited water. You can see this scaling up to a global technology.” – Steve Wittrig, Clean Air Task Force

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