The future of hydrogen as a transportation fuel has numerous hurdles to climb, but one of the most basic is just how it gets used in an engine.
Most of the focus has been on the debate between combustion — using hydrogen in an internal combustion engine engineered for it — or injecting it into an onboard storage tank where it is then fed into a fuel cell. The fuel cell generates electricity and the waste product is water.
Both have environmental issues. Combustion of hydrogen creates problematic emissions of nitrous oxide. Hydrogen in a fuel cell hasn’t improved emissions if the hydrogen was produced using electricity generated from a fossil fuel.
But there is a third option that is being pursued by some companies, with a well-funded startup called Amogy based in Brooklyn — yes, Brooklyn, New York — preparing for an on-the-water test of its approach later this year on the Hudson River.
The Amogy process involves using ammonia, which is made up of hydrogen and nitrogen. But instead of combusting ammonia or injecting it into a fuel cell, the technology behind the Amogy plan is to crack the ammonia into the separate hydrogen and nitrogen molecules — with nitrogen vented into the atmosphere, where it is already the largest element — and then use the pure hydrogen as a fuel to be injected into a fuel cell. The electricity coming off the fuel cell would then power an electric drivetrain.
Amogy’s business model is based on the idea of using ammonia built from green hydrogen, the industry’s term for hydrogen produced from renewable sources like wind and solar. If the hydrogen from the ammonia can be mapped back to one of those sources, then it can wear the badge of green hydrogen and be eligible for several key benefits: It can receive various tax breaks, and companies looking to meet a low-emission or zero-emission goal can count its consumption toward meeting that target.
It’s a plan that recently pulled in almost $140 million in new venture capital funding. Investors include the Saudi state oil company’s VC arm, Aramco Ventures.
“We see through our partnerships with the producer side that ammonia is going to be more available in the future,” Amogy CEO Seonghoon Woo said in an interview with FreightWaves at the company’s offices at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the site of ship construction years ago but now an incubator for startups like Amogy.
Specifically, with world ammonia supplies now somewhere between 200 million and 250 million tons per year, Woo said based on projects in the pipeline, supplies should rise another 100 million tons by 2030.
But even though a lot of work is getting done in Brooklyn, the target of all this effort is a test later this year north of New York City on the Hudson River. It will be the third live test of the Amogy system in which a form of transportation — in this case a tugboat — will be powered by the Amogy cracker/fuel cell combination.
The first, Woo said, was a truck. The second was a drone. An existing piece of equipment was used in both instances, and they are both onsite at the Navy Yard.
The tugboat is being retrofitted north of New York City on the Hudson River, preparing for a 12-hour journey that is likely in the fall, according to Woo. The duration of that voyage will test the ability of the Amogy system under more real-life conditions than for the drone and Class 8 tractor.
Woo said the tugboat test will require the production of more electrical output than the other tests and also gauge the ability of the system on the open water, with the challenges that vibrations and environment pose there. The 12-hour duration is expected to be the capacity of the ammonia onboard.
The arguments Woo makes against the alternative ways of the use of hydrogen besides ammonia were extensively discussed at the recent CERAWeek by S&P Global conference in Houston, where one speaker joked that the conference should be renamed Hydrogen Week since the fuel was such a major topic of discussion.
The most common “con” observations heard about hydrogen mostly are centered on issues of storage, infrastructure, transportation and density, which were the same challenges the energy world has conquered with natural gas and the growing market for LNG.
But for ammonia advocates like Woo, the difference between the LNG transition and ammonia is that the latter is already an extensively used product worldwide and it’s liquid at room temperature. Ammonia transportation is a fully developed market, as the human-made compound has long been a vital fertilizer.
Amogy has a far-flung footprint, a function in part of regulation and where it sees its future opportunities. Beyond the headquarters in Brooklyn, and the work on the tugboat near Albany, New York, it is also building a manufacturing facility in Houston that will construct the Amogy cracking system. The core of that system is a ruthenium-based catalyst for the cracking process. Ruthenium, a platinum-group metal, is now about $465 per ounce. At the start of 2018, it was less than $200 per ounce.
But the focus of much of Amogy’s work, according to Woo, is Norway. It’s one of the world’s major locales for international shipping companies and it has some of the most stringent rules for decarbonizing marine traffic.
“Norway wants to decarbonize shipping by 2030,” Woo said. A move to LNG-fueled shipping in recent years has moved that process along, “but we came to the point where everybody understands we have to change the fuel, and ammonia is recognized as one of the most important parts of the fuel of the future.
“We are piggybacking on mature fuel cell technology so we can go to market first,” Woo said.
As a result, Woo said, he would expect the first deployment of the Amogy system to be in Norway.
There’s another factor that would push ammonia adoption in Norway first: the price of carbon. The U.S. has no carbon-trading system, but the European emission trading system does. At 100 euros per metric ton recently, the price of carbon is near all-time highs. (The dollar equivalent at current exchange rates would be about $110 per metric ton.)
“So long as the price of carbon is near 70 or 80 [euros], it can give us price parity to diesel,” Woo said, adding that Amogy envisions the price of carbon going to 200 euros by 2030, “and that’s what gives us confidence.”
And on the other side of the ocean, Woo said he sees the $3 per kilogram credit for green hydrogen in the Inflation Reduction Act, combined with other incentives to spur infrastructure such as hydrogen hubs, as providing a huge lift to the hydrogen industry and ammonia by extension. And while there may be no U.S. carbon tax, Woo said companies with internal decarbonization targets generally have an internal cost of carbon that is used in their calculations.
Looming in the background is the International Maritime Organization, with its aggressive shipping decarbonization targets for 2030 and 2050 and a growing consensus that hydrogen, in one form or another, wlll be key to meeting those goals.
The overriding goal in hydrogen is “diesel parity,” a phrase that is at the center of any discussion of hydrogen’s viability as an alternative fuel. A kilogram of hydrogen and a gallon of diesel both have about the same amount of energy, so the comparison between the two is relatively easy.
The cost of producing hydrogen varies wildly around the world. S&P Global Commodities Insights has set up a hydrogen “wall” with costs around the world, illustrating the vast differences.
But Woo notes that just making green hydrogen isn’t the end of the process. Saudi Arabia and Australia are considered some of the lowest-cost producers in the world, but to get the hydrogen to market involves moving it as a gas with all of the issues that entails. The Amogy value proposition circles back to the argument that Woo makes: The transportation of ammonia and its embedded hydrogen molecules is likely to make that form the solution for a hydrogen-based energy transition.
Woo noted that ammonia is not without its shortcomings in some applications. It’s toxic and using it for passenger vehicles, with all of the human foibles that can accompany people filling up their cars, could be particularly dangerous if ammonia is the fuel. Those issues are more easily managed if the refueling is done under professional conditions, rather than personal handling.