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ammonia hydrogen cracking schematicHydrogen cars are on their way, and they aren't bringing harmful emissions with them. That doesn't mean they aren't without their problems. There are safety concerns about storing it under high pressure, whether that's inside the car or in a tank at the fueling station, for example. Also, the challenge of creating a hydrogen infrastructure at a large enough scale to actually make the cars practical is a daunting one. What if there were a safer, easier way to power vehicles with hydrogen? Well, some scientists in the UK might have an answer to that.

Ammonia, the chemical compound NH3, can be broken down into its nitrogen and hydrogen components through a process called "cracking." Generally, ammonia cracking requires expensive catalysts that wouldn't be cost effective to be used in an automobile. Scientists at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) in the UK believe they have discovered a way to crack ammonia without those expensive catalysts. Instead, this new process uses the much cheaper sodium amide to separate the hydrogen from the nitrogen.

"An ammonia decomposition reactor no bigger than a 2-litre bottle will provide enough hydrogen to run a mid-range family car." – Professor Bill David

Instead of just using the resulting hydrogen in a fuel cell, the ammonia itself can be combusted, though that process also requires a small amount of hydrogen, so there's still a need for ammonia cracking. With STFC's new process, all the necessary components could be carried on the vehicle. According to Professor Bill David, "We estimate that an ammonia decomposition reactor no bigger than a 2-litre bottle will provide enough hydrogen to run a mid-range family car."

And what about the harmful NOx gases that are a potential byproduct of ammonia combustion? Professor David says, "We've even thought about how we can make ammonia as safe as possible and stop the release of NOx gases." What that entails is unclear, but it is already known that NOx-free ammonia combustion is possible, and actually not too difficult.

The implications are good for people concerned about those pesky infrastructure and safety issues. The ammonia could easily be carried in the vehicle using just a plastic fuel tank, and it doesn't need to be stored under the high pressures that hydrogen requires. In terms of refueling, the liquid ammonia could be put into the car with the same type of pumps we already use at gas stations. Also, ammonia is relatively inexpensive, plentiful and easy to produce and transport. Ammonia is already a large industry, as it is widely used in agricultural fertilizers.

So is ammonia the new fuel of the future? We'll have to wait and see, as there are still questions to be answered, but these British scientists sound hopeful. According to STFC's Head of Innovation, Kate Ronayne, "This exciting research has the potential to dramatically influence the static and mobile energy solutions of the future. While still at an early stage, this innovative work offers a very elegant solution to some of the major challenges in harnessing the power of hydrogen as a fuel source." STFC is in the process of creating a low-energy demonstration system, so hopefully we'll learn more about ammonia's viability as a fuel source soon. Read more in the press release below.
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Hydrogen breakthrough could be a game-changer for the future of car fuels

23 June 2014 – UK researchers today announced what they believe to be a game changer in the use of hydrogen as a "green" fuel.

A new discovery by scientists at the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), offers a viable solution to the challenges of storage and cost by using ammonia as a clean and secure hydrogen-containing energy source to produce hydrogen on-demand in situ.

Hydrogen is considered by many to be the best alternative fuel for automotive purposes but there are complications with its safe and efficient storage and very significant concerns surrounding the costs of a hydrogen infrastructure for transportation. This new discovery may well have found the answers to both these challenges.

When the components of ammonia are separated (a technique known as cracking) they form one part nitrogen and three parts hydrogen. Many catalysts can effectively crack ammonia to release the hydrogen, but the best ones are very expensive precious metals. This new method is different and involves two simultaneous chemical processes rather than using a catalyst, and can achieve the same result at a fraction of the cost.

Ammonia can be stored on-board in vehicles at low pressures in conformable plastic tanks. Meanwhile on the forecourts, the infrastructure technology for ammonia is as straightforward as that for liquid petroleum gas (LPG).

Professor Bill David, who led the STFC research team at the ISIS Neutron Source, said "Our approach is as effective as the best current catalysts but the active material, sodium amide, costs pennies to produce. We can produce hydrogen from ammonia 'on demand' effectively and affordably.

Few people think of ammonia as a fuel but we believe that it is the natural alternative to fossil fuels. For cars, we don't even need to go to the complications of a fuel-cell vehicle. A small amount of hydrogen mixed with ammonia is sufficient to provide combustion in a conventional car engine. While our process is not yet optimised, we estimate that an ammonia decomposition reactor no bigger than a 2-litre bottle will provide enough hydrogen to run a mid-range family car."

"We've even thought about how we can make ammonia as safe as possible and stop the release of NOx gases," added Professor David. "This fundamental science therefore has immense potential to change the use of hydrogen as a fuel."

Dr. Martin Jones, also from STFC and who with Professor David invented this new process, said "Having developed this new approach to decompose ammonia, we are now in the process of creating a first low-power static demonstrator system. Our technology will no doubt evolve, but our research invites scientists and technologists to address a different set of questions."

David Willetts, the UK Minister for Universities and Science, said "This is exactly the sort of innovation we need UK researchers and engineers to develop to secure our role as a global leader in this field, putting Britain at the forefront of solving modern day transportation problems. This breakthrough could also hugely contribute to our efforts to reduce our greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050."

Ammonia is already one of the most transported bulk chemicals worldwide. It is ammonia that is the feedstock for the fertilisers that enable the production of almost half the world's food. Increasing ammonia production is technologically straightforward and there is no obvious reason why this existing infrastructure cannot be extended so that ammonia not only feeds but powers the planet.

2015 will be a significant year in the development of the car. While there is currently substantial interest and excitement in all-electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Model S, next year car manufacturers will begin to roll out a new generation of fuel-cell electric vehicles. Batteries play a significant role in these cars but the vehicle range, which will be equivalent to conventional cars, will be provided by a fuel cell powered by hydrogen.

These hybrid vehicles are touted to be the way ahead but while all-battery cars have issues with driving range, hydrogen provision is a major headache both on-board for the fuel cells and on the forecourt for refuelling. The hydrogen in these 2015 cars will be stored on-board in very high pressure tanks, and at even higher pressures at the forecourts. The safety issues of storing hydrogen on-board at these pressures are substantial while the cost issues of installing a new high-pressure infrastructure at the forecourts across the nation are currently massively prohibitive.

Speaking about this new development from the team at STFC, Professor David MacKay FRS, Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) said "We believe that there is no single solution to the challenges we face in decarbonising the fuel chain, but this research suggests that ammonia based technologies are worth further consideration and may well play an important part in the future energy landscape."

Five years ago, Professor Steven Chu, Nobel Prize winner and, at that time, the US Secretary of State for Energy in the Obama administration, sounded a death knell for the hydrogen economy with his statement that, while it takes only three miracles to be declared a saint, it would take four miracles to achieve a hydrogen-based energy economy. This work from STFC researchers could well be a turning point.

Kate Ronayne, Head of Innovation at STFC said: "This exciting research has the potential to dramatically influence the static and mobile energy solutions of the future. While still at an early stage, this innovative work offers a very elegant solution to some of the major challenges in harnessing the power of hydrogen as a fuel source."


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  • 36 Comments
      Marco Polo
      • 11 Months Ago
      @ Joeviocoe No matter what ever development occurs with HFCV technology, you're steadfastly " agin it " ! Are HFCV vehicles inherently less efficient than BEV's ? Yes and no. That's the difference between ideology and reality. It all depends on the criteria. Can a BEV drive across hilly terrain, at 70 mph for 300 miles and refuel in 120 seconds ? The answer is no, so by that criteria, the BEV fails. But it's a silly proposition, because no matter what the academic "efficiency", it's only the practical that matters, and that's determined by the criteria determined by the person setting the parameters of the criteria. It's the same with you absurd claim that some how research into H2 technology is driven by "desperation" ! That's just silly. None of the stakeholders in the HFCV/H2 industry are "desperate" ! Two of three main stakeholders are enjoying record prosperity, and the third is never desperate. Toyota, VW, BMW, Hyundai, etc, last year posted profits in excess of $100 billion, The H2 providers are not only hugely profitable, but hold reserves of more than $1 trillion. The third stakeholder, governments, are doing their best to keep the first two motivated, since a last percentage of their tax base and economy is dependant on a successful gasoline/diesel replacement, that operates within the same dynamics. If you just want to cheer for your chosen technology, like a football fan, that's ok. But if you want to contribute any meaningful analysis, you must consider those aspects that don't favour your own preferences.
      SublimeKnight
      • 11 Months Ago
      More piss poor hydrogen tech
      PeterScott
      • 11 Months Ago
      Ammonia is still a gas. Though one that takes much less energy to liquify. It is definitely easier to store/transport than Hydrogen, but then you have other issues. 1) What really happens to the NOx? 2) How much energy is lost coverting H2 -> NH3 -> H2? 3) H2 FCV is already a tiny niche, are they going to further subdivide it into NH3 cars and H2 cars, when it comes ot infrastructure. That only makes both even more impractical to build out.
      DaveMart
      • 11 Months Ago
      Jake Y: As the article says: ' "We estimate that an ammonia decomposition reactor no bigger than a 2-litre bottle will provide enough hydrogen to run a mid-range family car."' This refers, as the article goes on to make clear, to burning it in an ICE. Even after reforming the ammonia, a fuel cell uses the energy way more efficiently. I don't really think this is a good route, but that is what they are claiming.
      Jim
      • 11 Months Ago
      um.... and the ammonia will come from where?
      elrighto
      • 11 Months Ago
      The internet is the secret to better hydrogen cars because it introduces concepts and thinking from many different sources and people with ideas. Leonardo Da Vinci invented the helicopter and ball bearings in the1500s in his drawings but they weren't practical or produced until the 20th century.,If he had a modern computer he could have had discussions with thousand others with same equipment about improving or poo pooing his inventions.Practical ball bearings were not produced till 1998.Ball bearings save zillions of gallons of all sorts of fuel by reducing friction potentially.If we banter enough about better fuels on the internet eventually some PhD scientist or better yet most likely a garage mechanic having a beer in his basement watching his computer ccreen will try our ideas out and make an outstanding hydrogen or ammonia engine. Or some person at GM watching his computer at lunch instead of you know what they usually watch at lunchtime will try our suggestions Hmmm where does the word for automobile > car come from? I just figured it out last month.Must be from carriage.That means I a NewYorker have to admit Bostonians say it right .It sounds like the carr part of carriage when they say car.They park their carr.We park our car.
        Joeviocoe
        • 11 Months Ago
        @elrighto
        No amount of 'Banter' can change the economic reality of the infrastructure problem... and no amount of discussion will change the laws of physics which limits the efficiencies of Hydrogen production, compression and fuel cells.
      paulwesterberg
      • 11 Months Ago
      Where does Ammonia come from? How much energy does it take to make? Does production release pollution and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere? How much does it cost? How toxic is it?
        reconfreya
        • 11 Months Ago
        @paulwesterberg
        How many questions in row can you ask? Does it every end? How is your daddy?
          Joeviocoe
          • 11 Months Ago
          @reconfreya
          Not asking the right questions BEFORE massive effort and money is spent... is why we have had economic debacles in our past.
          paulwesterberg
          • 11 Months Ago
          @reconfreya
          These are the questions that the autoblog "journalists" should be asking and finding answers to. But the bloggers who write for this site just regurgitate marketing materials never bother to critically examine a technology so that it can be adequately judged on its merits.
      JakeY
      • 11 Months Ago
      My reading is that even in the case of an ammonia ICE, a small amount of hydrogen is needed. The 2L reactor is enough to make that hydrogen needed for combustion of ammonia, but there is no indication what size reactor is needed to make enough for a hydrogen fuel cell.
      • 11 Months Ago
      We are told that Hydrogen’s small molecule is too difficult to contain in quantity. Even if that were true it is so easily made it could be made on demand in the vehicle and placed in a small holding tank for use. I think the real reason we don’t have Hydrogen powered engines is it would release us from our bonds! Cheap power to plow the fields and end hunger, make electricity, transportation, all without pollution. The world would become a paradise, but the 1% will never allow us to break the revenue yoke and take away their control! Type your comment here
      • 10 Months Ago
      Now I will try and explain why this doesn't work in a on demand type situation as clearly as I can. If you are given three cups full of 100 marbles each that will give you a total of 300 marbles correct? On an atomic level all you can do is rearrange the marbles but in the end product will always have the same or less marbles depending how you grouped the marbles together you will never get more marbles is what I am trying to point out. In an on demand situation if the source of hydrogen only comes from the water then rearranging them into something new like NH3 or something of the like will only result in an energy loss as for every NH3 molecule created the hydrogen to do so comes from the breaking down of the molecules of water H2O. This is at an atomic level and the laws governing these reactions are quite clear, the conservation of mass, and the conservation of energy. Now what makes this different than what Stanley Meyer did from listening to what God was telling him to do? The reactions are not taking place on an atomic level but at the subatomic level. This is how to make use of water as a source of fuel in an on demand type situation. For at the subatomic level the rules change as E=MC2 and a few others now govern the reaction energy levels. Going back to the thought of on demand use of NH3 what people fail to ask is where is the source of hydrogen coming from to create the NH3? If the source is water then it takes energy to break the water down and for every two molecule of NH3 created it takes three molecules of H2O that need to be broken down to create them. Rates of reaction also have to be taken into account as at what rate will the NH3 be made and how will it be made in the presence of oxygen which is a better oxidizer than Nitrogen is? When you are talking about an on demand situation as we are here the production of NH3 or any other form of NHx will result in a loss of energy as you only have 100 marbles of hydrogen to work from as shown in the example above. Meyer did things at the subatomic level and as a result the rules change that favor making use of water as a source of fuel. I hope this post helps everyone to understand the questions these people aren't asking.
      • 11 Months Ago
      We are told that Hydrogen’s small molecule is too difficult to contain in quantity. Even if that were true it is so easily made it could be made on demand in the vehicle and placed in a small holding tank for use. I think the real reason we don’t have Hydrogen powered engines is it would release us from our bonds! Cheap power to plow the fields and end hunger, make electricity, transportation, all without pollution. The world would become a paradise, but the 1% will never allow us to break the revenue yoke and take away their control!
        paulwesterberg
        • 11 Months Ago
        You know that Shell, Chevron and Exxon have hydrogen stations right? You know that most cheap hydrogen is made from natural gas right? Good luck using hydrogen to break away from big oil.
        Marco Polo
        • 11 Months Ago
        @ bewolfe Paulwesterberg is quite correct. The HFCV,/H2 industry , has three principle stakeholders: 1) The Auto-industry. 2) The H2 providers. Mostly the world largest oil companies, along with petro-chemical suppliers like Air-liquide etc. 3) Governments, who are anxious to preserve their tax bases, and other economic benefits provided by the oil industry. It's true that there are other methods of producing H2 without the H2 providers, but none are really economic, nor would anyone else be able to organise, and pay for the cost of such massive global infrastructure. So, if you are an oil company hater, it's only natural that you would be opposed to HFCV/H2 technology, since it's inextricably bound up with the Oil/petro-chemical industry. However, if you are genuinely interested in the environment, then you should put aside your prejudices and examine the potential benefits that the HFCV/H2 offer to the environment.
      jalberts.houston
      • 11 Months Ago
      No where in this report do I see anything about the extreme dangers of high concentration ammonia. Ammonia gas is extremely poisonous if breathed. Several years ago the overturning of a tanker truck full of liquid ammonia on one of our Houston freeways resulted in the death and injury of several nearby freeway drivers and threatened the lives of the worker in the Houston Chronical building adjacent to the freeway. Nor is there any mention of the explosive nature of ammonia; for example, everyone should remember the devastation that destroyed a large portion of that town last year in the in the town of West, Tx as a result of the explosion and fire at the ammonia fertilizer storage facility there. As an engineer I applaud all efforts to develop better and more enviromentally friendly fuels; but, do not like to see articles such as this that fail to reveal all of the issues involved..
        Marco Polo
        • 11 Months Ago
        @jalberts.houston
        @ jalberts.houston You are correct when you point out the dangers, but all technology, especially energy technology has risk and danger. No scientist or engineer can mitigate that danger completely, or guarantee that the technology wont be misused. No doubt there was someone, standing by as the first men tamed fire, morosely commenting, "this'll end badly " !
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