Ammonia–Fuel of the Future?

Ammonia is currently in high demand in several fields, most notably in agriculture. It is also used in refrigerators and other cooling devices. Ammonia is used widely as a fertilizer because it contains nitrogen, which is essential for plant growth. Ammonia production has always been very high in terms of carbon usage because it is now often manufactured from coal or petroleum, and the Haber-Bosch process (which converts Hydrogen and some other material into a non-gaseous form of nitrogen) requires high energy inputs. 

Ammonia holds controversial positions in other environmental issues–it is a by-product of the refining process used to convert crude petroleum into a fuel source usable for vehicles and industry. Many big oil companies are currently dumping large amounts of ammonia into the Great Lakes as they refine oil–causing death of huge numbers of fish, polluting the lake, and initiating algae blooms, which are stimulated by the sudden source of readily-available nitrogen. Increase in the amount of oil that can be refined at this site in Chicago increases the availability of jobs in the area and makes Canada a more local source of oil than the Middle Eastern oil, which encourages political figures to dismiss pollution laws and standards concerning cleanliness of the Great Lakes.

However, the other side of the ammonia debate concerns the same algae issue but from a positive angle. If algae is a great potential biofuel, and ammonia can stimulate the growth of algae, then this ammonia waste might still find a use in modern manufacturing

Researchers in Maine are also looking into using wind power from sea wind mills to generate the electricity to power the Haber-Bosch process, which would presumably make the energy-intensive process at least carbon neutral. They are also trying to use the ammonia as a storage site for the excess energy produced by the wind mills, meaning that the ammonia could later be used as an electricity source or as a potential fuel source. The disadvantage, as with all nitrogen use, is the inevitable by-product of NOx, a large contributor to the formation of smog. Despite this, the benefits of ammonia use as a fuel source may still outweigh the negatives. It has already been show to work in a vehicle and is currently a hot topic in the world of biofuels.


One Response to Ammonia–Fuel of the Future?

  1. Dan Renner says:

    As you mention Craig, ammonia was used as a refrigerant.

    And back in the area of 1930s use of it in air conditioning systems was halted due to deaths in buildings where this sort of system was in use.

    I also find it interesting that ammonia is a by-product of the refining of crude oil, just as a current fuel was in the past.

    I’ve read that back in the late 1800s another by-product of oil refining that was also considered waste, and as such was also dumped into the nearby river. It is now called gasoline.

    Does “If you don’t learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it.” ring a bell? 🙂

    On another note, not only is Canada a more local source of oil, per the last US import data I saw, the one country importing more oil into the US than any other is … Canada.

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