Could Ammonia Work As A Fuel Alternative?

An engineer has developed a process that will produce ammonia more cleanly and possibly in enough amounts to provide an alternative energy source.

What's the Latest Development?

Currently being tested at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is a technique to create ammonia by pulling hydrogen from water vapor through an electrically-charged membrane before combining it with nitrogen. This type of synthesis, if it works as expected, will be scaled up for a pilot plant in Alaska that will generate energy for local communities from both wind and ammonia. Bill Leighty of the nonprofit Leighty Foundation says that the project "will allow us to give Alaska's energy islands – 150 of them – a degree of energy independence." The process was developed by engineer John Holbrook, who has co-founded a company, NHThree, to bring it to market.

What's the Big Idea?

When burned, ammonia's outputs are water vapor and nitrogen, making it a potentially valuable clean fuel. However, production commonly begins by heating natural gas or coal to extract hydrogen. Getting that hydrogen from water is one of several eco-friendlier alternatives, along with pulling it from the air, as University of Minnesota researchers did recently with electricity from a wind turbine. Clean Air Task Force spokesperson Steve Wittrig thinks these efforts are very promising: "There's unlimited nitrogen in the air, and there's unlimited water. You can see this scaling up to a global technology."

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