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Transportation Power Science

New Chemical Process Could Make Ammonia a Practical Car Fuel 380

overThruster (58843) writes A article says UK researchers have made a breakthrough that could make ammonia a practical source of hydrogen for fueling cars. From the article: "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. ... 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.'" The full paper. The researchers claim that a two-liter reaction chamber could produce enough hydrogen to power a typical sedan.
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New Chemical Process Could Make Ammonia a Practical Car Fuel

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  • I'm not sure if I understand the point. Why crack the ammonia to get the hydrogen out-- anhydrous ammonia is flammable; why not just burn the ammonia?

    --stinky and poisonous, of course, but I suppose no worse than gasoline.

    • by itzly ( 3699663 )
      Combustion engines have very low efficiency. Electric motors have very efficiency, and also make for a much simpler and lighter car.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      no moving parts and you can use an electric motor to power it. an electric motor is 95% effeceient, while even gas turbines are only around 45%

      math favors the fuel cell. depending on how light you can build the fuel cell and how small you can build an electric turbine motor, this could work well for aircraft, boats, and cars.

      battery vehicles don't work very well for ships and aircraft.

    • by jcgam69 ( 994690 ) on Thursday June 26, 2014 @03:04PM (#47327021)

      why not just burn the ammonia?

      Actually this is possible. From wikipedia []:

      Ammonia cannot be easily or efficiently used in existing Otto cycle engines because of its very low octane rating, although with only minor modifications to carburetors/injectors and a drastic reduction in compression ratio, which would require new pistons, a gasoline engine could be made to work exclusively with ammonia, at a low fraction of its power output before conversion and much higher fuel consumption

    • by sjames ( 1099 )

      Their proposal is to reform some of the ammonia to form an ammonia/hydrogen mixture which will work better in an engine.

  • "For a fraction of the cost". There is no money to be made by selling the world something it needs for just pennies. Ammonia is available everywhere for pennies, and I suspect sodium amide is available for pennies as well. This doesn't equal good business when you can still sell gasoline for some orders of magnitude more, and as such you can be damned sure no one will ever allow this to be a legit fuel for cars.
    • Ammonia isn't particularly cheap for it's energy content.

    • by SlaveToTheGrind ( 546262 ) on Thursday June 26, 2014 @03:02PM (#47326973)

      There is no money to be made by selling the world something it needs for just pennies.

      Um, yeah. Just ask this guy [].

    • by gurps_npc ( 621217 ) on Thursday June 26, 2014 @03:02PM (#47326991) Homepage
      The reason we use gasoline as a fuel is because it is incredibly cheap. It costs less than pretty much anything else you can think of, with the exception of tap water in locations where tap water is common.

      The reason why the gas companies have power is not because they are magic, but because they sell it so cheaply, yet make a huge profit.

      So when you say "damned sure no will will ever allow this to be a legit fuel for cars", you are basically wrong. The proof is that diesel and ethanol additives are also sold as fuel.

      If this was cheaper per gallon than gasoline, without any additional problems (i.e. cars still went as fast, no deadly poisons released), then you would be trampled by the rush to convert cars to ammonia.

    • by countach74 ( 2484150 ) on Thursday June 26, 2014 @03:09PM (#47327075)

      It makes perfectly good business sense. If you were an entrepreneur, wouldn't you be very happy to move to such a technology, drastically undercutting the oil companies? Contrary to popular belief, businesses don't generally make killings because they charge a lot, but rather because they don't charge a lot, relative to other alternatives. If you were one of the first firms to enter such a market (assuming the consuming public moves on this new tech) and make a very handsome profit, charging far more than your input costs. New players will eventually enter the market and big down prices, but since you were [one of the] first players, you got to make a killing. That is how economics works. The market rewards the first entrants to a market via profits above and beyond the going rate of return.

      Actually, I think the crux of the problem is that you don't understand price theory. Price is not determined by the cost of the inputs. Rather, society determines the price via their actions in purchasing or not purchasing a good (and of course to nearly infinite extents of purchasing vs not purchasing). The more society wants a good, the higher prices will be driven up (all things the same), inducing more competitors to the market who compete for the lion's share, in turn bidding down the price until equilibrium is reached. (Nevermind that equilibrium almost certainly will change before it is ever reached.)

    • They'll sell ammonia for only slightly less than the equivalent amount of gasoline and increase their profits. The oil industry has been known in the past to fix prices through cabals.

    • Right, there's no money in selling the ammonia.

      But there's a profit to be made selling the thing that can run on free fuel as opposed to $5.00/gal oil.

      And there's a fuckton of profit to be made inventing the technology that allows the car-makers to earn a profit over the heads of their competitors.

      This would be a FANTASTIC business.

      you can be damned sure no one will ever allow this to be a legit fuel for cars.

      AAAAaaahhh, implied anti-competitive practices by the entrenched powers. That's a legitimate concern and if these guys wind up mysteriously murdered and/or promoted to the oil/ga

  • Now I'm confused ... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Thursday June 26, 2014 @02:54PM (#47326873) Homepage

    OK, I'm officially confused.

    According to wiki []:

    A typical modern ammonia-producing plant first converts natural gas (i.e., methane) or LPG (liquefied petroleum gases such as propane and butane) or petroleum naphtha into gaseous hydrogen. The method for producing hydrogen from hydrocarbons is referred to as "Steam Reforming".[2] The hydrogen is then combined with nitrogen to produce ammonia via the Haber-Bosch process.

    So, we're going to generate hydrogen, so we can make ammonia, and then we're going to ... use the ammonia to make hydrogen?

    Either I'm completely not understanding my own link, or there's a magic step in there which eludes me.

    If you're already efficiently making hydrogen to make ammonia,and you wanted hydrogen for fuel, why not skip the step of making ammonia?

    I guess the obvious conclusion is that it's easier and safer to deal with ammonia, but my dad used to manage refrigeration plants, and ammonia isn't something you fool around with either.

    • by Bob535 ( 639390 )
      Storing hydrogen in cars is bad. It's stored in pressure vessels. Storing liquid ammonia is much safer.
      • Liquefied anhydrous ammonia or water with a tiny bit of ammonia in solution?

        • by jcochran ( 309950 ) on Thursday June 26, 2014 @04:36PM (#47327837)

          Unfortunately, it needs to be anhydrous ammonia.
          Looking at the paper, what they're doing is

          1. Convert sodium amide into metallic sodium, hydrogen, and nitrogen.
          2. Convert ammonia and metallic sodium into sodium amide and hydrogen.

          They can easily balance those two reactions.
          However, if there's any water in the system, there will be a 3rd reaction going on as well.
          3. Convert water and metallic sodium into sodium hydroxide and hydrogen.
          That 3rd reaction would effectively consume the sodium prevent it from making more sodium amide.

          Given how nasty anhydrous ammonia is, I definitely know I wouldn't want to be anywhere near an accident involving it.

      • by sjames ( 1099 )

        Not to mention that hydrogen makes metals brittle and will slowly diffuse out of a 'solid' metal tank.

    • by richtopia ( 924742 ) on Thursday June 26, 2014 @02:59PM (#47326939)
      It is a density issue. Hydrogen is difficult to transport and store. One solution would be to truck ammonia to the service station, where you can dump it into below ground storage and generate/compress H2 on demand. The other option would be to perform the H2 generation onboard of the car, but the issues of the toxicity of ammonia would still require fancy fuel tanks so I think the local generation model would be superior.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Ammonia can be stored liquid at room temperature and pressure, has high storage density (NH3), and is the second most commonly produced chemical in the world.

    • by idji ( 984038 ) on Thursday June 26, 2014 @03:57PM (#47327515)
      They have just found a cheap way to crack NH2 to N2 and H2 and are excited about that in combo with simpler fuel storage and transport - they are not focusing on the energetics of H2 or NH3 generation with the Haber-Bosch process here.
      The point here is that to store Hydrogen you need 10,000 psi ( and Ammonia only needs 250 psi in a plastic container (
      They are looking at the following problem
      and have worked out that they can do
      H2O+Energy->H2,+N2+Energy->NH3->NH3-Storage->H2 +N2 without NOx->FuelCell->Electricity +H20
      and what they are excited about is that NH3 storage and transport is a known and solved problem industrially and NH3 cracking is now cheap and clean. Now someone just needs how to work out H2O->H2->NH3 using solar and the problem is solved.

      There is also the other issue that a H2 leak is benign or a quick fireball and that an NH3 leak will eat the noses and lungs of everyone nearby.... []
    • Two reasons:
      * storage - ammonia is a liquid at fairly low pressure (150psi/1000kPa). [Unlike hydrogen, which requires very high pressure (10,000psi/70,000kPa), and generally cooling. And the damned stuff seeps though anything (dem H2 molecules are kinda small)]
      * energy density - as a liquid, ammonia has about half the energy of petrol (gasoline). Not bad - certainly better than the average battery. Vastly better (7x) better than hydrogen

      It's not delightful stuff to handle, but beats the heck out of a highly

  • by pla ( 258480 ) on Thursday June 26, 2014 @02:57PM (#47326895) Journal
    Catalyst: "a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without itself undergoing any permanent chemical change."

    Yes, metals like palladium and rhodium cost a good chunk of change, but you don't need a lot of them, and you only need them once (per car). You add them in trace amounts to a porous honeycomb-like structure to maximize surface area, and bam, that whole gram of palladium adds $30 to the total cost of your car. Make no mistake, the more ways we have to accomplish a particular reaction, the better, and I consider TFA very cool news... But the cost of the catalyst wouldn't break the bank vs the cost of a new car.

    Call me paranoid, but I can tell you a much more realistic reason we don't already have cars running on ammonia - The DEA. I can't buy a goddamned bulk pack of (real, not reformulated) Sudafed without showing two forms of ID, and $Deity help me if I actually need to get more in the same month! On the other side of the meth equation, a convenient source of anhydrous ammonia would make it much easier and safer to manufacture, so no ammonia for you!
    • Well, bureaucratic idiocy ignored, there is another small wart on this process.

      Catalysts are very sensitive to "poisons" - chemicals that stop their catalytic activity. Sodium amide used as a catalyst has a vulnerability to a potent catalytic poison - that being water. A little moisture in the fuel tank, a little moisture in the fuel lines, and presto. No catalyst.

      I'm not saying it's not possible, I just don't know how one would keep that pestilential dihydrogen monoxide carefully excluded from the proce

    • You're talking theory and we're talking reality here.
      "In theory" your catalytic converter should never ware out. They told us when they made them mandatory decades ago that they'd never ware out.
      But in practice, I end up replacing one every 5yrs or so. During the intended reaction they don't undergo any permanent chemical change. But that requires what they're reacting with to be 100% pure. Which is impossible. All kinds of stuff gets into fuel, the catalyst corrodes and we end up having to replace it.

  • I will piss in my gas tank at each rest stop, providing ample ammonia for my journey.
  • And those who came at first to scoff
    remained behind to pray

  • What are the byproducts?

    • by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Thursday June 26, 2014 @04:08PM (#47327607)

      For the conversion from Ammonia to Hydrogen: Nitrogen.
      Ammonia is NH3, so you'd get mostly Hydrogen and a byproduct of 1 nitrogen atom.
      Nitrogen is already 78% of the earths atmosphere, and not a greenhouse gas. So it's not bad... at all.

      Once you have the hydrogen, you mix it with oxygen and light it. (assuming you don't use it in a fuel cell)
      You can literally put hydrogen into a normal combustion engine and it will run on it.
      Hydrogen is 3x as energy dense as gasoline. So it works fantastically well. Newer cars with computers would need some modification. But if you're using an old carborated engine it works great.
      What comes out the exhaust is water.
      I've actually experimented with this. I have a "Rock crawler" (imagine a mini-monster truck) and one thing we're always dealing with is when trying to go up or down extreme angles gasoline engines tend not to work so hot. They like to be level. Hydrogen doesn't care if its upside down. I eventually went with natural gas. Hydrogen is hard to get in remote areas. But you can get a natural gas tank filled just about anywhere. But yea, if I could create it from stored ammonia I'd probably go back to it. The engine ran a lot better on it than natural gas.

  • This article was published Jun 24, 2014, a day later an article states Japan Moves to Fast-Track Cars Powered by Hydrogen Fuel Cells. Coincidence? I think NOT!
  • That ammonia's not insanely explosive.

  • Producing ammonia [] today consumes more than 1% of all man-made power, and natural gas is used as a source of hydrogen. Like hydrogen, it is an energy carrier and not a energy source. That considered, ammonia produced with nuclear heat [] would be an excellent carbon neutral liquid fuel, and is expected to cost significantly less than gasoline.

  • Because in a world of capitalist systems, that's all that matters. At the moment, I buy 25 miles of transportation for about $3.45 cents.

    I'm pretty sure that ammonia doesn't have anything like the energy density of gasoline, and that it costs more per unit of energy. Feel free to show me how wrong I am.

    TL;DR: Another horseshit, "we're saved! There's never going to be an energy problem again!" article.

  • by coolmoose25 ( 1057210 ) on Thursday June 26, 2014 @04:00PM (#47327541)
    Most people are familiar with the Ammonia that you buy in a store... but it is not Anhydrous Ammonia... it is diluted in water, and even so, you don't want to take a big whiff of the stuff, it will knock you on your butt. Anhydrous Ammonia is pure Ammonia... It requires hazmat suits to transfer that substance from container to container (fuel pump to fuel tank in a car?). It's possible that you could distribute a more dilute formula to "gas" stations, but the effect would be dropping lots of water on the roads as you used the fuel. Do we have enough fresh water for this? Perhaps. Not to mention that the more dilute you make it, the more of it you will have to cart around per mile. Anyway, it is much more likely to cause accidents than gasoline. Don't believe me? Ask a farmer how much he likes using the stuff...

God helps them that themselves. -- Benjamin Franklin, "Poor Richard's Almanac"