Ammonia/BP: chemistry experiment may yield transports of delight

Hydrogen is a colourless element but a colourful topic. Green is the most popular hue, denoting production from renewable electricity. Fans say this version of the gas can become a cheap, clean medium for storing and transporting energy. Companies such as BP hope to make the technology work at scale.

On Wednesday, the oil group announced it would take a 40.5 per cent stake in the Asian Renewable Energy Hub project in Western Australia. BP will help develop and operate a plant that will turn plentiful solar and wind energy into ammonia.

Ammonia is corrosively toxic. But it is less combustible than hydrogen — which it contains — and natural gas. The perils of the latter were underlined by last week’s explosion at a liquefied natural gas plant in Texas — alone responsible for up to 4 per cent of Europe’s gas imports.

Ammonia therefore has scope to substitute for a chunk of fossil fuels. This would help decarbonise our rapidly warming planet. It would also support western Europe’s effort to wean itself off Russian natural gas.

Most of the hydrogen used in Europe to make ammonia and other chemicals comes from splitting natural gas. Projects such as HH2E, which will build 10 electrolysers across Europe, aim to shift demand away from this “grey” hydrogen.

BP and its partners expect the Australian green hydrogen plant to become one of the world’s largest, producing 9mn tonnes of ammonia annually. Total investment should top $30bn. Initially, the plant in the arid Pilbara region hopes to supply local miners such as Rio Tinto and BHP. Later, BP envisages producing and shipping ammonia to Asian customers that currently buy LNG. After that, the target would be Europe, where steelmakers need to decarbonise.

But turning sunlight into hydrogen, then ammonia and eventually back into electricity is plain silly, says David Cebon at the University of Cambridge. Expect energy losses of more than 80 per cent from start to finish. That means electricity from green ammonia could be five times as expensive as power drawn directly from wind turbines or solar panels.

Cebon says technologists should focus on making green ammonia for fertilisers, not storing and transporting energy. But this is unduly dismissive. Hydrogen has potential. Businesses such as BP are right to explore this. Investment, like chemistry, depends on experiments to move forward.

The Lex team is interested in hearing more from readers. Please tell us what you think of the BP project in the comments section below.

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