Sunday, February 23, 2014

Is ammonia the holy grail for renewable energy storage?

"If you want to beat carbon, it's the only way to do it unless you change the chemical charts." So says Jack Robertson about the prospects for making ammonia the world's go-to liquid fuel and renewable energy storage medium.

Robertson is chairman and CEO of Light Water Inc., an ammonia energy storage startup. The carbon he mentions refers, of course, to the major carbon-based fuels of oil, natural gas and coal that provide more than 80 percent of the world's energy. The charts he mentions refers to the periodic table of elements, a listing of the basic elements of the universe which are about as likely to change their properties as the proverbial leopard is to change his spots.

Most of us think of ammonia as a pungent household cleaning agent that disinfects and deodorizes. Farmers are familiar with anhydrous ammonia (essentially ammonia that is not mixed with water) that is a common nitrogen fertilizer.

But the idea that ammonia can be used as a fuel, while not new, is not widely known. That's not really surprising since the last 150 years have been powered by another better-known liquid fuel called oil. And, the ubiquitousness and historically low price of oil prevented other liquid fuels from gaining a foothold in the marketplace. The use of historically cheap coal and natural gas has kept ammonia on the sidelines in the electricity market as well.

But now, two things have changed. First, concern about climate change has policymakers scrambling to figure out how to reduce carbon emissions. Second, the world's primary liquid fuel, oil, has been trading at its highest daily average price ever for the last three years. In 2011 the average daily price of Brent Crude, the world benchmark, was a record $111.26 a barrel--which was followed by another record in 2012 of $111.63. The year just finished saw Brent Crude a bit lower on average at $108.56, a figure higher than all but the two previous years.

(Despite all the hoopla about rising American crude production, the rate of oil production worldwide has eked out only a small gain of 2.7 percent between 2005 and 2012, about a quarter of the growth rate of the previous seven-year period. And, this slower growth in the face of rising demand in India and China has led to record prices.)

What makes ammonia so attractive as a fuel is sixfold. First, it contains no carbon. The ammonia molecule is composed of one atom of nitrogen and three atoms of hydrogen. Therefore, when ammonia-based fuel is burned, it produces very little in the way of greenhouse gases. The small amount of oxides of nitrogen that it does produce can be neutralized by ammonia itself. Second, we already have well-known processes for making ammonia. We don't need new or exotic technology to produce it. Third, these processes have long ago demonstrated that they can be scaled up to form a worldwide ammonia production industry. Fourth, an ammonia distribution system is already in place that includes rail tankers, tanker trucks, ships, barges and ammonia pipelines, a system that uses pressures no higher than that found in a bicycle tire to keep ammonia in its liquid state. While that infrastructure would need to be expanded, no new technology is required to transport ammonia from where it is made to where it is used.

Fifth, ammonia has an enviable safety record. There have been mishaps. But they don't involve fire since ammonia is not easily combustible. Those who've used ammonia cleaners will understand that it is the fumes which pose a danger if they are too concentrated. On the other hand, humans can detect the strong smell of ammonia at very low levels, long before it ever reaches toxic concentrations. And, this means that in the event of an accident, humans can flee or take measures to protect themselves from harm before it's too late.

Sixth, if manufactured using renewable energy, ammonia, when produced and then burned as a fuel, creates little that can be classed as pollution (except a small amount of oxides of nitrogen mentioned above which can be neutralized by the ammonia itself). When ammonia molecules are broken down into their constituent parts during combustion, the nitrogen returns to the atmosphere and the hydrogen reacts with the oxygen in the air during combustion to form water.

Ammonia energy research is part of the hunt for a cheap method of storing intermittent flows of energy from wind and solar power generation, a major problem that has plagued the expansion of these low-carbon technologies. The wind, of course, doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine. To make matters worse, when the wind blows most and the sun shines its brightest, sometimes too much electricity is produced and some of it must essentially be dumped. A similar problem plagues hydroelectric dams as I will explain below.

So, how exactly would ammonia be used for renewable energy storage? While others have been working on this problem, Robertson's story is instructive. After many years as an aide for the late U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon, Robertson returned to Oregon to work for the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) where he eventually rose to the rank of deputy administrator.

Each spring from his perch at BPA he watched enormous amounts of water run down the Columbia River, much of which would never generate electricity at the agency's hydroelectric dams because there was simply too much water. Even the electricity that was generated from the dams and later from the huge wind farms installed along the river would often be sold for almost nothing during the spring. Occasionally, the BPA actually had to pay others to take its excess electricity.

Robertson wondered if there might be some way to store all this excess power and then use it in other seasons when supply from the dams and wind farms was lower and electricity prices were higher.

After an early retirement he went to work on the problem in a more systematic way, first founding a nonprofit that studied the issue. One of the possible answers was to produce ammonia using the excess power. Robertson realized that in order to bring that idea to fruition he would need to raise private capital and formed Light Water Inc.--so named because ammonia produces light if used to generate electricity and also water as hydrogen combines with the oxygen in the air during combustion (as previously noted).

Robertson's aim is to produce "green" ammonia. By "green" he means produced using only renewable energy to separate hydrogen from oxygen in water molecules using electrolysis. (Ammonia is currently most often made using hydrogen stripped from methane or coal.) The "green" hydrogen would then be combined with nitrogen drawn from the air (which is 78 percent nitrogen) to form ammonia through the well-known and widely used Haber-Bosch process. The huge excess power available in spring from the BPA's system of dams and wind farms along the Columbia now doesn't have to be wasted, he believes.

It could be used to make ammonia in quantities so large that the resulting volumes could be sold to provide power and fuel for other parts of the country. The most likely interim step would be to trade green ammonia certifications to utilities and others that have access to fossil-fuel based ammonia but would benefit from that certification for regulatory reasons such as credits and incentives for using renewable energy. It would be similar to buying carbon offsets. Once the green ammonia certification is traded, the actual green ammonia would lose its certification and enter the general ammonia supply. The arrangement provides incentive for producing green ammonia that displaces fossil-fuel based ammonia locally without incurring the financial and energy costs of transport.

Of course, wherever hydroelectric power and wind and solar energy are in large surplus at various times of the year (or in the case of wind and solar energy, various times of the day), ammonia-producing plants could be set up to store that excess energy for later use and/or sale to or certification trading with more distant locales.

Robertson has combined his efforts with several others to seek funding from the California Energy Commission to test high-efficiency, high-compression engines fueled by ammonia as a way of producing electricity. (Even standard diesel and gasoline engines can be adapted to burn ammonia. But this is not the focus of Robertson's project.)

If the project is funded, a successful test could pave the way for private funding that would take the concept to the next step, a working pilot plant and then a commercial-scale plant that make ammonia and use it to generate electricity for utilities during peak load hours.

Robertson's project is but one example among many of experiments with ammonia as a fuel. The NH3 Fuel Association lists several efforts on its website.

The public has been previously tantalized by supposed energy breakthroughs such as ethanol and cold fusion--only to be disappointed when the results failed to match the hype or were nonexistent. But, the world already has long experience with ammonia, and so most of the questions surrounding its use, safety and scalability have already been answered--except one. Can it become a breakthrough alternative liquid fuel and storage medium for renewable energy?

The evidence so far suggests that it has a far better chance of succeeding than many of its current competitors.

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This piece was updated on 2/26/14 to reflect additional information and corrections discussed in my comment below.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Progressive Commentary Hour with guests Kurt Cobb and Nate Hagens

In lieu of my regular weekly piece, I'm posting a link to a radio interview I did last week for the Progressive Commentary Hour as I take a brief hiatus. I was privileged to be on with Nate Hagens, former editor of The Oil Drum. We focused on the effect of peak (affordable) resources and climate change on the economy and society. I was pleased that host Gary Null had such a deep understanding and appreciation of the issues we discussed. You can find streaming and downloadable versions of the interview on the Progressive Radio Network site by clicking here and then scrolling to the bottom of the page.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Remembering where we live: Physics vs. biology

It is awe-inspiring to view images of galaxies and nebulas brought to us by high-powered, space-based telescopes. And, it is even more amazing to see depictions of such phenomena as if we, the viewers, are suspended in space a long, long way from Earth. In fact, in modern science fiction movies and television shows we are regularly treated to adventures that take place wholly outside of our solar system and even outside our own galaxy.


Artist's Rendering of The Milky Way
Source: NASA

But there arises an obvious question when one looks at, say, an artist's rendering of the Milky Way with our place in it highlighted: Who is seeing the Sun, the solar system or the Earth from that vantage point? The answer, of course, is no one. No human has ever seen the Sun, the solar system, or the Earth from that distance. And yet, we can conjure such a point of view and imagine through special visual effects that we might someday actually see such sights with our own eyes. In fact, some people claim that it is only a matter of time before we do.

This is the distance the mind can travel using physics. Physics is "the science that deals with matter, energy, motion, and force" according the dictionary. It is the world of "res extensa," literally, "extended things." It presumably operates without respect to humans. If we humans weren't alive, physical laws would still hold in the universe; and, the world of objects, of "res extensa," would still exist. Physics offers a bodiless, infinite view of where we live. According to physics we live in the universe.

In reality, we are biological creatures. Our existence is entirely enmeshed in a web of life and necessary resources that runs from the deepest oil wells to the upper reaches of the atmosphere. If the Earth were an apple, we would live within the equivalent of the skin. Yes, we have on a few occasions sent humans beyond this narrow band of life, but no further than the moon and only for short periods of time. Long-term human presence in space is problematic; we aren't made for it.

And yet, our lives, our outlook, our policies are all geared toward the view that we live in an infinite universe--that we can grow our population and our consumption infinitely. After all, we've got the whole universe to draw from for whatever we need--which accounts for the occasional proposals to mine asteroids and scoop helium off the Moon. (This physics-based mindset is so deeply embedded in our culture that it affects our actions even if we are not fully conscious of it and even if we do not buy into some of the more fantastical claims related to it.)

There is also the dream that we will terraform other planets, that is, transform them from rocky, atmospherically challenged wastelands into Earthlike havens. I am reminded of the opening of the short-lived television series "Firefly" which begins with the narration: "Here's how it is. The Earth got used up. So, we moved out and terraformed a whole new galaxy of Earths."

Which begs the question: If we have or will have such powerful technology, why not just fix the Earth? The answer, of course, is that it is not that simple. We are not the Earth's masters, just one set of its inhabitants with very, very limited knowledge about how it works. That being the case, it is hard to imagine that we could ever figure out how to remake another planet in Earth's image, let alone do it in any time frame that matters to humans.

And so, our home remains in the biosphere including to some extent the hydrosphere and the lithosphere. In relation to the universe, this home is limited, tiny and fragile. All the other rocky planets in our solar system--Mercury, Venus, and Mars--either have had most of their atmosphere ripped away or, in the case of Venus, developed one so thick that it would press down fatally on Earth's large life forms. Atmospheres friendly to advanced life appear to be rare.

Compared to the feeling of limitlessness provided by physics, our biology seems like a prison that keeps us close to the Earth. Science studies scholar Bruno Latour refers to those who accept our biological limits as "earthbound"--as distinct from normal humans who continue to believe that we will one day transcend our biospheric prison and populate the stars. It is the latter view which prevents us from thinking clearly about the limits of our earthbound existence.

Billions of people are not going to rocket off the surface of the Earth anytime soon for a rendezvous with all those planets terraformed in the television series "Firefly." Instead, we are faced with the difficult task of salvaging our existence on this planet through the tedious work of completely reworking modern civilization in order to harmonize it with the limits of the narrow envelope of life we inhabit on Earth.

That work can only succeed if we remember where we actually live.

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P.S. I am once again indebted to Bruno Latour who gave the Gifford Lectures last year which inspired this piece and a previous one. And, once again I thank my friend Jim Armstrong for thoroughly stimulating ongoing discussions about these lectures and Latour's latest work.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

The shareable economy: Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good

Last fall at the Shareable Cities Summit in Portland a panelist from Getaround, the car sharing service, made the astounding statement that car sharing had the potential to reduce the number of cars on the road by an order of magnitude--for the math-impaired that means 90 percent.

What makes this seemingly fantastical development possible is the fact the cars sit parked 95 percent of the time according to Donald Shoup, a UCLA professor of urban planning who has made a specialty of researching parking. (This fact has had a huge impact on the urban landscape. But that's a subject for another time.)

The received wisdom is that we are heading toward 2 billion vehicles on the road in the next 20 years, a doubling of today's 1 billion. This is put down primarily to auto demand in India and China. I've doubted this wisdom from the start because of obvious constraints on the liquid fuel supply. But virtually no one in policymaking circles believes that vehicle numbers are headed downward, let alone dramatically downward.

I mentioned car sharing in a recent piece and was criticized for advocating car use which was called "unsustainable." But sustainability is keenly sensitive to scale. A world with, say, 100 million cars is clearly more sustainable than one with 1 billion or 2 billion cars. And, while we cannot hope to create a perfect world from the one we have, we do have responses that can make significant strides toward a better one. Hence, my admonition not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Our primary task must be to reduce drastically the amount of resources we use in our daily lives. The first step in doing that is to recognize that it is not goods which we seek, but the services they provide. The shareable economy in all its forms--outright sharing, libraries of tools and other items, renting from neighbors--offers a way to reduce considerably our resource use by giving people access to all manner of things and the services they provide without having to buy something new.

Essentially, we are using the vast idle capacity embedded in the existing infrastructure (in the broadest sense of the word) instead of promoting the idea that households and even businesses need to own every object from which they derive needed services--no matter how much those objects may remain essentially idle.

Now some people might complain that when you rent something to someone, it isn't really sharing. But, I'm fine with having the term "shareable economy" signify the whole range of transactions that involve using existing rather than newly manufactured objects. This is the key distinction. And, I have no qualms about someone making a profit from such a transaction. I have long maintained that if we can make mitigating climate change and resource depletion profitable, then everyone will want to do it. Entrepreneurs around the world are figuring out ways to do just that.

I acknowledge that this is not a complete solution and that the sharing economy will inevitably take many forms. But in the absence of concerted government action, we shouldn't underestimate or underutilize the power of the marketplace to spread profitable practices that mitigate both climate change and resource depletion.

The car sharing business is currently riding the tailwind of a shift in preference among young urban adults in America who increasingly find that they do not want to own cars. But it makes sense that people living in the densely packed urban centers of India and China might come to the same conclusion and that car sharing and other aspects of the shareable economy could grow there; after all, these cultures are much less individualistic than we Americans are.

We can dream of a renewable energy economy powered by wind and solar with new miraculous electricity storage technology and with electrified transportation, walkable cities and clean energy technologies deployed everywhere. People are working furiously on this future.

But, in the meantime, with climate change and resource depletion bearing down upon us, we cannot wait. We must pursue the least risky strategy available to us, namely, deep reductions in the resources we use to get the services we need. One the quickest ways that I can see that happening is the spread of the shareable economy in all its forms.


Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now Resilience.org), The Oil Drum, OilPrice.com, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at kurtcobb2001@yahoo.com.