NH3 – 101

NH3 is an element which is referred to as “one to many”.

What this means, is that NH3 is the common denominator for a host of energy and transportation solutions, depending on how it is utilized (no pun intended).

It is the basis for most of the world’s fertilizer production. It is also an alternative fuel which can serve as a direct replacement for most types of motive (transportation) fuels, be they gasoline, diesel, or even jet fuel, and that’s just for starters. The legendary X-15 rocket plane, pictured above, was also powered by NH3 when  Col. Chuck Yeager took it for his historic flight in 1957, becoming the first aircraft in history to break the sound barrier.             

It can be used to store commercial quantities of nearly all forms of electrical energy, be they renewable (wind, solar, tidal, etc.), which we happen to highly prefer, or even for traditional forms of generation, as produced with coal, oil and other fossil fuels. In such instances, NH3 serves as an energy time-shifting solution, by means of temporary energy storage, in order to both optimize the use of all of the electricity being generated, as well as to minimize the amount of waste and losses which occur when that generation doesn’t precisely match the loads (users), for whom it is being produced. Which happens to be most of the time, over any given 24 hr. period.

NH3 also serves as a quality refrigerant, the basis of many pharmaceutical products, and as a raw ingredient in a host of other cleaners, solvents, and various other materials and assorted products.

One Tool; Many Jobs.

Traditionally, NH3 has been produced at industrial facilities, such as the one below:

At such a plant, industrial quantities of NH3 are produced daily by the reforming of steam, as powered by natural gas, primarily in N.A., and by the burning of coal, largely within China. Obviously, both means generate significant GHGs, just in different proportions.

NH3 was even produced at a dedicated hydroelectric powered facility (60 MW), in Vemork, Norway, in 1911, but this is considered by many to be a unique installation.

The principal need for NH3 production at that time, way back in 1909, was driven by a surging increase in population, globally, and the expanded requirement for fertilizers, in order to significantly increase worldwide agricultural production. In fact, Fritz Haber, the original inventor whose name is attached to the Haber-Bosch process, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1919, “for the significant increase to the world’s food supply”

So far, so good.

Next, it found a home as the element of choice, for use in commercial refrigeration systems. Unfortunately, it was largely beaten out of that market by the (then cheaper and simpler-to-produce) CFCs which, rather ironically, would go on much later to be identified as key culprits, in the depletion of the ozone layer. Today, NH3 is still being used as a prevalent medium for the air conditioning and refrigeration industry, (see Links tab). It is also important to note, that this industry association also represents a portal to the many companies and working professionals, who are already properly trained and equipped, to build and manage NH3 based facilities. As are also those scores of people throughout the agricultural heartland, who have been handling it and using it, as fertilizer, for a great many years.

Skilled Labor. One more (major) item on the checklist for “here and now” zero-emission energy projects, now also checked off.

As far back as the ‘30s, there were isolated flirtations with NH3 as a possible alternative to gasoline and diesel fuels, mostly driven by wartime shortages of the latter. New Orleans used it for their streetcars in 1871; Belgium used it to power their buses, from 1943, on:

But bear in mind that by this point, the world’s addiction to an oil-based economy was already well set, which would eventually lead to the triggering of various conflicts and wars, for control and dominance of its global production. That was the dark side of fossil fuel production, but we were of course still all yet to even learn about such things as toxic emissions, acid rain, pollution itself, and of course the big one;  Global Warming.

Oil was cheap, oil was plentiful, and life was good.

And production was mostly domestic, providing us all with abundant energy security.

And then the world changed, radically. As Buckminster Fuller so prophetically stated it, “The greatest change in the 20th Century, is the change in the rate of change”. Accelerating acceleration. In other words, a world speeding up, exponentially; a brave new wonderous world, one filled with computers, mass communications, greatly expanded travel options , and a society warm to the siren call of becoming mass consumers.

We were in the middle of an unprecedented boom, back in the 1950s, and then, not so much. Societal upheaval ensued as a new generation took to the streets in protest, against a very unpopular war, and to the blind desecration of not only our own environment, but of the one we share with all other leaving species, and with whom we are all so interdependently linked. And all in the name of the almighty buck.

And then in 1990 we noticed, and started to measure, the direct effects of our own human impact on the environment, and the planet itself. And the news was not good; delivered in the form of the imminent threats of Global Warming, and Climate Change. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, it turned out that the world’s largest supplies of oil weren’t actually in places like Texas and Oklahoma anyway. In fact, by that point we had become net oil importers, thereby placing us all at the mercy of any hostile regime or foreign oil cartel, who might be able to deliver us from our shortages. Truly, a “worst case” example, of supply and demand.

Not that we didn’t try. There was The Nuclear Age, an era when we were firmly convinced that there was no mess whatsoever that we could make, and that there was no problem too big, that our god-like Scientists couldn’t invent our way out of. To be kind to the nuclear industry, that really didn’t pan out so well.

And then we got smart, (albeit being dragged, kicking and screaming into it), and started to embrace the new order, the so-called Carbon Economy, a world wherein emitters are punished, and non-emitters are rewarded. Countries such as Denmark, Germany and the U.K. led the way, with the development of wind turbines, and solar projects, and Green Technologies in general, designed to be direct replacements for our current, carbon emitting ways. And brand new ways of doing business, such as Feed-In Tariffs, came into general being.

And so, back to NH3.

As a fertilizer, it is indeed still 1 part N (Nitrogen), the key ingredient required in soil nutrition. But it is also comprised of 3 parts H (Hydrogen). And that is of very great interest to us. Hydrogen can easily be made to burn, and to explode (3 kilometres/sec. !!!), and if that awesome energy is then somehow harnessed, it can be used as an Energy Storage Medium (fuel), one that can be used both in combustion engines, and in the near future in fuel cells, which fossil fuels of course can not.

However, Hydrogen is not the stablest, and therefore not the safest, of all elements, to deal with. In order to even contain it (cryogenically), it must be stored in very specialized tanks, capable of maintaining it at extreme temperatures (-352C.), and at intense pressures of +10,000 PSI. Aside from being so hazardous a material, in its native state, the very energy required to maintain such drastic conditions, ends up then “parasitically” robbing the system itself, of much of its own energy output. Irony in motion.

But NH3 is still a very simple element indeed, and that extra element of N, has an extremely positive effect on the other 3 parts of H, supporting much safer and stabler storage and handling, similar in nature to the propane you might use in your home BBQ, stored at only 150 PSI (to keep it liquified), and at most temperatures that we human beings, and/or our machines, might normally encounter.

And so, at the turn of the 21st century, the stage was set, for NH3 to make a great big “comeback”, at least outside of the fertilizer industry, as a potentially ubiquitous solution, to a plethora of energy urgencies.

A community sprang up, online and academically. Backyard innovators adapted their cars to run on NH3, just to prove that it could be done. And did it ever. In 2007, a team of students managed to drive an NH3 powered truck, as below, from Detroit to San Francisco. It was also used for a very classy NH3 Hot Rod.

Not only was the direct substitution for gasoline a “winner” in all respects, but it was also confirmed that there was actually no carbon whatsoever being deposited into either the engine, nor the environment outside. In point of fact, the N (Nitrogen) actually broke up and cleaned away previous carbon deposits, from when these same engines were run on gasoline only. Shell even features Nitrogen as a premium additive in their gasolines, for these very reasons, in their recent round of TV and magazine adds.

And all of that exploration has led to even further investigations, into the use of NH3 to power many other forms of ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) applications; such as a diesel locomotive, GenSets (diesel powered electrical generators), stationary engines (pumps, etc.) and all manner of industrial machinery (cranes, etc.).

Again; so far, so good.

But still, no one had been able to deliver any new solution for producing NH3 viably, and locally, other than by minor variation of those methods as originally described in the Haber-Bosch patents, now 111 years ago.

That is: Until Now.


Introducing :: The NH3 500 – Standalone Fuel Synthesizer

Our flagship product is a free-standing NH3 production plant, about the size of two refrigerators side-by-side, capable of producing 500 litres/day – 20 litres/hr., or 130 (US) Gal/day – 5.5 Gal./hr.

It is powered by electricity, and we of course have a strong preference for that electricity to be sourced from a  renewable supply, be it wind, solar, or tidal. The only feedstocks (raw materials) are Air +Water.

The Math: 2 litres of Water + 7.5 KWhrs of Electricity = 1 litre of NH3.

Therefore: 2 (US) Gal. of Water +  30 KWhrs of Electricity = 1 (US) Gal. of NH3.

Any calculation is therefore based on the value/cost of electricity, in any given market, and at given time of day. To claim that NH3 costs “x” amount of $ / gal., is essentially misleading. Under ideal conditions, that price may be as low as 5 cents per KW/hr. In the worst case, as much as 10 times that amount. And while all such pricing may be volatile, the amount of electricity required to produce a Litre or (US) Gal. of NH3, is not. It is finite.

Currently, our technicians are assembling the first of these machines by hand, and delivering them to a select group of BETA testers, within both gov. and the private sector, via a series of field trials and pilot projects, throughout 2014/15. Full commercial production starts immediately thereafter, with client deliveries commencing by Q2, 2015.

In the interim, we are making our ALPHA Machine #1” available as a demonstration unit, and benchmark test-bed, for purposes of due diligence, and academic and commercial feedback. Please contact our business development office, at your earliest convenience, should you wish to be included.