We recently had a chance to interview Dr. John Holbrook of the Ammonia Fuel Network regarding a couple of their projects.
If you're just joining our reporting, George Bush has prattled on endlessly about "the hydrogen economy", but there are many technical hurdles to transporting diatomic hydrogen, while the country already has a network of pipelines and filling stations for ammonia. We believe ammonia will be the vehicle for the storage and transportation of stranded renewable resources.
The other day we had a conversation with John Holbrook, ranging from his work on the Ammonia Fuel Network, a broad effort by many individuals and organizations to promote this clean, renewable fuel, to a hydro power firming effort aimed at replacing gas powered "peaker" electric generating facilities with a similar ammonia based system, to his work on solid state ammonia synthesis. John is a friendly, accessible fountain of information and we're going to hearing a lot from him and the Ammonia Fuel Network in the future.
The Ammonia Fuel Network is currently camping out on a web server belonging to Iowa State's Biomass Energy Conversion Facility, but Holbrook has just completed the paperwork required to turn the organization into a 501C-3 nonprofit in the state of Washington and their own web site will be going up shortly. Most everything that we know about ammonia as a fuel and its production comes from having read the works of the contributors which are posted on the web site in PDF form, and then email and phone conversations with the likes of Holbrook, Homer Wang, and Bill Leighty of the Leighty Foundation.
Holbrook, not satisfied with merely instigating change at a theoretical level, is actually out hunting engineering work for his own company, Ammpower LLC. His first project is one near and dear to the hearts of those interested in stranded wind, although you might not see it from initial inspection.
The Pacific Northwest lacks the wind we have and their renewable electricity source, hydroelectric, is the most stable and reliable of the family. Why would they need a power storage method for a resource that is by definition something that can be used for base load generation? The dynamics are a little different, but the replacement of a peak load natural gas electric system is very similar to our needs in firming wind.
The plan is quite simple - the hydroelectric production serves the base load and a small amount of the power is drawn down by an ammonia production facility. This would be done generally in the spring when the snow-melt runoff provides abundant inexpensive electric power. The ammonia production "trickle charges" from zero to full in the span of a couple weeks and at full charge enough ammonia is banked to provide one to ten megawatts, or more, of electric generation over a sustained period of a few hours up to twenty four hours. A study was made of the use of peak load generation and that combination of available available power supply coupled with a fairly leisurely recharge time should provide the needed power with a comfortable margin of error, and minimize capital costs for ammonia synthesis and storage components. We realize we're teasing just a bit on this; we've invited John to provide a more detailed technical write up of the concept, which is called a Hydrogen Hub.
Most interesting but furthest out is the work being done on solid state ammonia synthesis. Today about 3% of all natural gas in the world gets used in the production of ammonia via the Haber-Bosch process, in which the hydrogen from the methane is stripped and carbon dioxide is emitted. Electrolysis of water to produce the hydrogen rather than using natural gas has been done in the past, but such efforts have become unprofitable in the face of cheap gas from places like Trinidad. Once SSAS is ready for commercialization its primary benefits are that it can start fairly small in terms of investment required and that is scales easily by adding new elements as increased supplies of hydrogen and nitrogen become available.
2008 is going to be a very exciting year for renewable energy and we think everyone is looking forward to seeing what the Ammonia Fuel Network does once their web site is up and rolling.