Will liquid ammonia save the day?

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switters's picture
switters
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Will liquid ammonia save the day?

I just listened to the FSN interview this weekend with Matt Simmons.  I've heard Simmons speak several times and I've read his book.  Generally he talks about how significant the challenge of PO is and how urgently we need to act.  This time, however, he was hugely optimistic about a wind-power project he's working on in Maine.  One of the goals of this project, of course, is to produce electricity.  

But that's not what he's so excited about. They will also use the electricity produced by the turbines to create liquid ammonia from seawater. Anhydrous ammonia is one part nitrogen and three parts hydrogen.  Producing ammonia from electricity is a well-understood technology. Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen. Hydrogen can be produced by passing an electric current through water, and electricity can also be used to combine that hydrogen with nitrogen from the air to produce ammonia.

According to Simmons, it's entirely possible to run our transportation fleet and heat our homes using liquid ammonia.  The octane rating of gasoline is typically 87 to 93.  Ammonia is higher octane - 170 to 180 - so it has a lot of energy potential in it.  It has about half the energy density of oil, and of course we'll never run out of seawater or wind.  What's more, the byproduct of burning liquid ammonia is desalinated water and salt.  It is a zero emissions product.  

On the downside, ammonia is a deadly poison in concentrated doses.  Liquid ammonia boils at -33 °C and at normal temperatures must be contained in a pressure vessel, so a broken tank or hose can have fatal consequences.  In small doses it is not harmful to air-breathing creatures, but for marine life it is a serious environmental hazard even in very small amounts.  Another issue is that anhydrous ammonia is very difficult to burn.  You have to have very specific conditions for it to ignite.  (Perhaps this can be solved with new technology).  

And there are other problems with anhydrous ammonia. It happens to be one of the precursor chemicals used illegally to make methamphetamine.  It is often stolen from farmers by meth cooks, which has caused the need for new heavy regulations.  It also can cause serious burns if handled incorrectly.  That said, if an increase in the meth supply is the only obstacle to using liquid ammonia to run our transportation fleet and heat our homes, I have a hard time seeing it as a deal-breaker.

Admittedly I am skeptical.  I just read Henberg's extensive report on alternative energies and he didn't even mention (unless I missed it) liquid ammonia as a potential fuel to replace oil.  But I don't know enough about liquid ammonia and it's challenges to make a determination one way or the other.  Do you?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

switters's picture
switters
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Re: Will liquid ammonia save the day?

UPDATE: Here is an audio program of Simmons talking about liquid ammonia.  Thanks to Awareness for posting the link in the Heinberg thread.

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Re: Will liquid ammonia save the day?

Ammonia is considered the most powerful compound in the Universe, followed closely by Water.  Inspection of the thermodynamic properties of ammonia as you've touched on, has limitations...water has potentially more efficient energies.  The differences between water and ammonia aren't enough, in my experiences to pursue a Rankine Cycle of Ammonia versus Water.

There are considerable hurdles with Ammonia, plus unique QEM and thermodynamic anomolies aspects of water...in my view...provide greater opportunities/advances with water than ammonia from past projects.  Either way, your talking decades.

Initial claims and/or timelines for most projects tend to be too optimistic from my 30+ years.

This is a complex issue.

Nichoman

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Re: Will liquid ammonia save the day?

NIchoman,

Comments like that are what keeps me coming back here.

Aaron

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Re: Will liquid ammonia save the day?

I just listened to the podcast with Matt.

If this is so promising, then how is it so under the radar? As opposed to solar, wind, battery powered cars that we hear about all the time

I guess my question would be with wind. Wind doesn't always blow consistently. Matt is talking about building massive windfarms off the East Cost, China, the Middle East. And then off the coast of Maine where the initial deployment is, there are massive Nor'Easters and the rare hurricane that blows through. Can these 70-90 story wind farms sustain winds up to 100mph?

Realistically, how much electricity, water and liquid ammonia can be produced? I mean, don't get me wrong, it sounds like a great idea. But there's got to be some type of limitations with this idea as far as total production is concerned. It may be that we can use the liquid ammonia to power the tractor trailors to keep the deliveries running. Or, better yet, build a better railroad infrastructure and power the railcars with liquid ammonia. This is interesting. I will keep my eye on it.

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Re: Will liquid ammonia save the day?

Pass electricity through brine and you do NOT get ammonia. You get chlorine. Try it with a bowl of salt water and a battery

 

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Re: Will liquid ammonia save the day?

The thing that always confuses me with these concepts is that, we take an easily created energy electricity, then spend it creating something for example ammonia, then use that chemical to release energy...

Whats wrong with this equation? For instance why not just pump that power into the Electrical system and voila you have electricity that can be used. Otherwise the efficiency losses in creating storing and transporting some chemical are greater than the transmission losses of the electrical current. I'm fully aware that (most) cars cannot run on electrical power, but wasting efficiency for convience seems to be counter intuitive to this lowly physicist.

Actually, a simpler fuel would be hydrogen anyway rather than ammonia, since currently there are experimental internal combustion engines from most major manufacturers that can run on hydrogen (to my knowledge BMW, Mercedes and Honda to name 3), obviously with similar storage safety concerns, but these are likely have similar risks as ammonia (although with different outcomes) one is a big kaBoom and fire (H2) the other is a smaller kaBoom with toxic alkaline gases (NH3) and possibly fire.

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skeller
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Re: Will liquid ammonia save the day?

Ammonia or hydrogen are ways to store power. As are batteries, compressed gas,or water pumped to a high level. All involve losses

in efficiency. They permit  the use of power when needed, not when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.

 

 

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Re: Will liquid ammonia save the day?

Switters, thanks for starting this thread. I heard the interview too and was wondering how others would react to it. Glad to see that CMers are on the ball with regard to this type of thing.

Gungnir, I like what you said.

Gungnir wrote:

The thing that always confuses me with these concepts is that, we take an easily created energy electricity, then spend it creating something for example ammonia, then use that chemical to release energy...

Whats wrong with this equation? For instance why not just pump that power into the Electrical system and voila you have electricity that can be used. Otherwise the efficiency losses in creating storing and transporting some chemical are greater than the transmission losses of the electrical current. I'm fully aware that (most) cars cannot run on electrical power, but wasting efficiency for convience seems to be counter intuitive to this lowly physicist.

I think the ammonia could just be a way to give us some time while we transition to an electric/battery infastructure.

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Gungnir
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Re: Will liquid ammonia save the day?
skeller wrote:

Ammonia or hydrogen are ways to store power. As are batteries

Indeed, however, most batteries being a known and well developed technology have fewer problems than chemical conversions (admittedly most high storage batteries use chemical conversions, i.e. Lead Sulphate to Sulphuric acid and back again) however fortunately when you have high potential electrical power the transmission line losses are very small, unlike the loss converting brine to hydrogen, then hydrogen and Nitrogen to ammonia, then transporting the ammonia to its end point of use or distribution then actually burning it.

Electrolytics don't necessarily have this issue, since you can power an electrical grid from a central location, as you do when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, and like I currently do since I do not have grid power, I run a generator and capture excess power that the generator is producing and store it in SLA batteries, which are hooked to a power inverter to produce 120V 60 Hz. Come the spring this will be augmented with both wind and solar yes it's not as efficient as I would like, but currently solar is "free" after initial investment, and wind is "free" too after the initial investment (or at least I don't yet see ExxonMobil charging for sunlight used, or wind used).

Main issue I see with chemical conversions is that burning a fuel in an engine is lossy in comparison to an electrical motor (hence large ships now are mostly run on Electrical motors rather than drive from the engines, the engines power generators which charge battery arrays and power the motors). Since the aim seems to be to use electrical power to create a burnable fuel, this confuses me, as the question is why do we need a burnable fuel? To power automobiles... Nope we can run electrics, for heating and cooking... Nope we can use electric heaters (in fact I suspect that I'm one of the few here that absolutely positively can state that none of my heating uses electrical power), for our gadgets, which all run on electricity out of the box?

Now you see my confusion the electricity --> something else --> something else --> something else --> power (of some sort) is inherently lossy even at say 99% efficiency since each --> results in 1% loss of the input. whereas electricity --> power (of some sort) can have that (say) 99% efficiency and only result in a 1% loss. Hence my confusion for "convience" we're burning energy which in lies the rub, since we know we're hitting an energy peak with current technologies, and I have very low confidence that we will invent a new technology in time to even extend that energy peak let alone eliminate it. We do need various mechanisms to create certain compounds that we need and use, however creating them simply to create some form of kinetic energy does not seem to be high on the list of logical uses. Hence my confusion as to the purpose...

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