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Friday, December 24, 2021

Removing fossil fuels from ammonia-based fertiliser production

Farm productivity depends on nitrogen fertilisers. 

Large-scale ammonia plants have dominated the industry and these use fossil fuels as a chemical feed stock and energy. 

Other options are available - that use renewable feed stock and renewable energy to replace the fossil fuels used in traditional plants. 

Their is also an opportunity to make smaller scale production plants that will allow fertiliser to be manufactured near to both the renewable feed stock and to the farms that use the fertiliser. 

Urea is a widely used nitrogen fertiliser. Global production is estimated to have been 240 million tonnes in 2019. 

Most is made with natural gas as a feed stock and a source of energy. 

One tonne of urea has for much of the last ten to twenty years has cost about $500. It has risen sharply in price in 2021, costing around $1,500 a tonne. 

One tonne of urea contains 200 kilograms of carbon. 

Wheat straw and other crop waste containing cellulose contains this same amount of carbon in each 450 kilograms of cellulose. 

The first step in making urea is to produce synthesis gas - a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. 

This can be carried out with a device to gasify biomass. 

An example is the gasifier made by All Power Labs which it builds to make synthesis gas it uses to power an engine to drive an electricity generator. 


The PP30 Power Pallet is the culmination of our long work to create an expertly engineered, small-scale gasification solution that is realistic for today’s user. While personal scale gasification has long held tremendous promise, the realities of making it work usually prove too much for regular mortals. The high bar of operator expertise and extreme sensitivity to fuel particulars usually combine to make what seems simple in principle, exceedingly difficult in practice.

The Power Pallet has significantly widened this window for success by embedding the needed operator expertise in an onboard electronic brain.

To increase the proportion of hydrogen in the synthesis gas - for a following ammonia production step - an electrolyzer that produces some hydrogen by electrolysis of water using renewable electricity - could also supply pure oxygen to use in the gasifier. 

To convert the carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide and more hydrogen - both of which are used in later steps-

  • hydrogen to react with nitrogen to produce ammonia, and 
  • carbon dioxide to react with that ammonia to produce urea 

- a small-scale methane reforming unit is produced by Tokyo Gas that it uses as a fuel processing module in domestic fuel cell appliances.

Ene Farm Fuel Processing System by Tokyo Gas
Ene Farm Fuel Processing System by Tokyo Gas


Because the three reactions take place at different temperatures, conventional practice is to use three varieties of reaction vessel. However, Tokyo Gas developed an integrated fuel processor that can handle the three chemical reactions in one vessel in 2000. 

We set a mass production target for 2003, and subsequently achieved further structural streamlining, developed and improved a high-performance catalyst, and reviewed the catalyst operating method. 

As a result, we succeeded in reducing total volume of the fuel processor by one third and production costs by two thirds in 2013.

The only other ingredient is nitrogen. Membrane filters are available that filter nitrogen from air for medium scale production processes.

A typical manufacturer of nitrogen membrane filters is Generon

Since the first large-scale ammonia production plants were built, many technical enhancements have been identified in the equipment to maintain the optimum temperature and pressure, the design of catalysts, and the development of chromium-molybdenum steel reaction tubes. Each of these enhancements can be replicated in a scaled-down plant. 

Small scale ammonia production plants are in operation that operate with renewable energy. 

The Siemens green ammonia test plant uses wind power to convert hydrogen and nitrogen to ammonia.
The Siemens green ammonia test plant uses wind power to convert hydrogen and nitrogen to ammonia.


Siemens in the UK is working with researchers at the University of Oxford, the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council, and Cardiff University to run a demonstration plant using the typical Haber-Bosch process, powering it with wind. Ian Wilkinson, program manager in corporate technology at Siemens, names two reasons the firm chose to use only mature technology available today to run its plant.

First, Siemens wants to show that it can produce ammonia renewably, in a way that it can quickly scale up. The company also views the plant as a test system for ongoing technology development, including Haber-Bosch catalyst development and ammonia combustion tests.

The plan has worked so far. The small plant, set up in shipping containers, takes electricity from a wind turbine, runs it through a hydrogen electrolysis unit, and then uses the resulting hydrogen to synthesize ammonia.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Paying fossil fuel producers to store carbon dioxide

The Australian Government and fossil fuel industries have planned for over a decade to have taxpayers pay fossil fuel businesses to store carbon dioxide. 

Discussion on climate policy often raises the possibility of some carbon pricing mechanism. 

The preferred option of the Australian Government - to have taxpayers fund the storage of carbon dioxide - is ignored as though it is unthinkable.

Australia includes Carbon Capture and Storage in the Emissions Reduction Fund
Australia includes Carbon Capture and Storage in the Emissions Reduction Fund

The two different approaches can be easily understood in several other policy areas. 

As an example, consider the meat export industries in two countries - such as Australia and the U.S. 

Assume that beef producers in both countries need identical government-regulated export inspection services to assure the quality of the exports. 

Assume also that the cost of government-regulated export inspection services is identical in the two countries. 

The Australian Government, in line with policy of its economic advisors, considers that full cost recovery is the most rational method of funding the service it provides to beef producers. 

See for instance:

Australian Government Charging Framework

"The Australian Government Charging Framework (the Charging Framework) is a policy of the Australian Government. The Charging Framework covers activities where the government charges the non-government sector for a specific government activity such as, regulation, goods, services, or access to resources or infrastructure."

And the implications of implementing it:

Live exporters facing huge cost surges under Federal cost-recovery plan

The cost of an annual livestock export license in Australia will soar from $25,000 to over $100,000 under the latest round of cost recovery increases planned by the Federal Government.

As it does with other export sectors, the Federal Government aims to recover the full bureaucratic costs it incurs for certifying and regulating the livestock export industry, through a series of fees and charges imposed on livestock exporters.

Every five years or so the Federal Government reviews and updates the rates it charges with a view to ensuring full cost recovery from industry.

Suppose that the U.S. Government does not adhere to this economic philosophy, and provides its beef industry with the same services - at the same cost - but pays for the service from general revenue collected from taxpayers. 

In both countries, the same service is provided, but in the U.S. the cost is borne by taxpayers and so U.S. exporters - who do not bear the cost - do not need to recover the cost from the customers who import beef from the U.S. 

In Australia, the cost is borne by the beef industry. It needs to recover the cost by adding it to the price it charges its customers. 

The Australian beef producers are, as a result, at a commercial disadvantage to the competing beef exporters in the U.S. who are not charged for the service provided by the U.S.Government at no cost to them. 

Now, back to the public "blind spot" on alternatives to a carbon price...

While it may seem obvious to everyone that a carbon price is the way forward, it is only one of two ways to pay for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. 

With a carbon price, businesses that emit carbon dioxide bear the cost - through that carbon price - for emitting the carbon dioxide, and need to add that price on to the products they sell. 

This puts them at a commercial disadvantage to other businesses that provide alternate products that do not incur that cost. 

This is similar to the example of beef exporters, where one group bear the cost of a service, who are in competition with exporters in another country who are selling a competing product but without bearing any cost for the same service. 

The Australian Government has long planned to allow fossil fuel exporters to avoid the cost of carbon dioxide emissions. 

The most recent and clearest example is the measure announced in October 2021 to give Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs) for carbon capture and storage. 

This measure is only the latest step in a sequence of measures put in place over several decades. Earlier steps were in preparation for regulating and licencing underground storage sites for carbon dioxide. 

Greenhouse Gas titles in Commonwealth waters in Australia
Greenhouse Gas titles in Commonwealth waters in Australia

The most recent step is the concluding step to address commercial viability of carbon capture and storage. It prevents carbon capture and storage being a cost to fossil fuel producers that they will only choose if a carbon price makes it cheaper to store carbon dioxide to avoid paying the carbon price.

Allocating Carbon Credits for storing carbon dioxide results in taxpayers paying for pumping carbon dioxide into the underground storage sites that are being licensed. 

This is like the hypothetical example of beef exporters where cost of the service is the same - in this case, storage instead of emitting carbon dioxide - but the cost is borne by taxpayers and not by the businesses that use the service.