Saturday, February 16, 2008

The alternative fuel of the future?

I mentioned the possible use of ammonia as a fuel the other day in a post about peak oil (see lower down) and having 5 minutes free this afternoon thought I'd have a quick look.

It seems that the technology is already just about in place. In fact nH3ydrofuel of Canada is literally on the verge of marketing a conversion kit allowing petrol engined vehicles to run on ammonia ($6000). Now at first sight that might seem a hefty price, but with petrol at $1+ per litre ammonia is comparatively cheap at ~50 cents per litre. The technology will also allow you to fill the special tank with LPG so you car effectively becomes a tri-fuel hybrid.

OK, so what are the environmental impacts of running an internal combustion engine on ammonia? The good news is that CO2 emissions are minuscule (you have to start the vehicle on petrol for 15 seconds in order to purge the equipment, but that's negligible) and once the ammonia feed kicks in it produces virtually no CO2. My immediate concern was that NOX emissions might be a problem, but they claim that they are only 25% of the NOX emissions from burning petrol. So this would appear to be an extremely environmentally friendly fuel.

They have filed some 20 patents covering all types of engines (including diesel) and several very interesting ones around power plants running ammonia for developing local electricity supplies. These also include patents for taking domestic, commercial and human waste and converting it to ammonia; the idea being that local authorities could generate their own electricity from waste that would otherwise go to landfill.

Despite the action of the Canadian government 25 years ago (Greg Vezina demonstrated a vehicle running on ammonia back in the 1980's but promised developmental assistance was withdrawn in preference to oil subsidies), ammonia energy technology definitely seems like one to watch for the future.

Remember, you heard about it first here on Junkk.

Just for the sake of providing balance, the potential downside to the use of ammonia as a fuel is that the only cheap way of producing it is from a natural gas feedstock, which is, of course, a finite and non-renewable source.

Addendum2 (via Junkk Male):

A welcome (if contrary) new contribution from, I believe, a new poster in the comments section. As this is an interesting and important issue I have updated the whole post, and it also gives me a chance to pop in his link hyperwhizzbang attached.

I think we need to figure a way of adding Dave's tip on how to do that on comments in the main body somehow. Maybe we should suggest it to Blogger?

Addendum 3 (Dave):
Geoff, thanks for the contribution. If you read through all of the posts in the forum discussion from the link you provided ( direct link above), it actually concludes that Ammonia could well be a viable alternative fuel, at least from a theoretical scientific viewpoint. "It takes 46 kj/mol to turn the ammonia into N2 and H2, then releases 363 kj/mol when you burn the H2. So you get a net energy output of about 317 kj/mol of NH3."

Addendum 4 (JunkkMale):

Greenbang - NEW - Chilled ammonia: the new carbon capture star - Would you like an olive with that? Not quite the right place, but the stuff is getting about!


Peter said...

Well.... maybe a close second... or first in the UK? (Don't want to overclaim!)

A heady responsibility.

And blimey, isn't this the stuff that you clean the loo with and is covered with skulls and crossbones? Or nice dentists on sabbatical make stump removal devices out of? Or ecover says is evil to even put in the waste water system?

Seems a a bit scary/corrosive to contemplate so there may be a consumer acceptance problem (take me as a sample of one), but o.....k.

And no I have not read up on it like wot you have so I may be being a numptie, but I'm presuming the enviROI consequences of getting it from the ground and into the tank and out the pipe are all on the + side?

Not so concerned about £, as we all kno, but the stuff just doesn't bubble up ready to be siphoned in the local Esso forecourt I'd hazard.

Anyoo, if they... and you... are right then here's hoping it's another worthy option to look at.

Dave said...

Yes, it is rather nasty stuff which tends to kill people (I remember being stuck in a secure shelter on a chemical plant in the NE for several hours after an ammonia leak killed two workers when a valve malfunctioned).

But, it is something that is easy and cheap to produce on a commercial scale (indeed, mankind has been mass producing it for more than 80 years), it is easily stored and transported, and yes, the enviROI consequences do seem to be largely on the +ve side.

If you have 15 minutes to spare it is worth watching Greg's launch presentation (on the site with the link in the blogpost).

Geoff said...

An interesting article about this is at
It seems a total non starter to me :-(