Image courtesy of Amogy

First Ammonia-Powered Tugboat Coming To New York This Year

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Shipping has been reliant on the diesel engine ever since 1911 when the Selandia, a diesel-powered freighter built in Denmark, traveled from Copenhagen to Japan and back via London and the Suez Canal — a total of 22,000 nautical miles. That signaled the beginning of the end of coal as the primary fuel for ocean transportation. Since then, the diesel engine has dominated the world of shipping while leaving billions of tons of carbon and sulfur emissions in its wake. Today, those emissions are responsible for around 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Now, ammonia may be doing to diesel what diesel did to coal over a century ago.

Earlier this year, Amogy trialed an ammonia powered Class 8 tractor trailer. This week, it announced it is converting a tugboat built in 1957 to ammonia power and expects it to enter service by the end of this year. The tugboat will be outfitted with a 1 megawatt version of Amogy’s ammonia powered fuel cell system — three times larger than the system field tested on that ammonia-fueled truck earlier. The company says its highly efficient ammonia-to-power technology feeds liquid ammonia through its cracking modules integrated into a hybrid fuel cell system which then powers the electric motors for zero carbon shipping.

“We’re incredibly proud of unveiling the first ammonia powered vessel later this year — especially because of the hope, promise, and anticipation that ammonia has built as a zero emission fuel in the heavy transportation industry — specifically in regards to maritime shipping,” said Seonghoon Woo, CEO of Amogy. “This is the first milestone of many you will see from Amogy in accelerating the accessibility and scalability of clean energy in the global maritime industry. With successful demonstrations of our ammonia-powered drone, tractor and semi-truck under our belts, we look forward to presenting the first ammonia-powered ship in 2023, with a target to fully commercialize in 2024.”

Yara Clean Ammonia, a subsidiary of the Norwegian company that is one of the largest ammonia producers in the world, will be providing green ammonia for the demonstration. Ammonia, which does not emit CO2 when used as a fuel, is expected to become a next-generation fuel because it has properties that are ideally suited for the hydrogen economy. Green ammonia, which is produced with renewable energy, results in zero greenhouse gas emissions from “well to wake.”

Magnus Ankarstrand, president of Yara, says, “We are excited to be a part of Amogy’s tugboat project and to deliver green ammonia as a fuel for the world’s first vessel powered by ammonia. Yara Clean Ammonia plans to launch the world’s first Ammonia Bunker Network in Scandinavia, which is expected to expand YCA’s capacity to produce and ship ammonia globally.”

Other partners that are collaborating to bring the first ammonia-powered ship to life include Seam, Amogy’s electrical systems integrator; C-Job Naval Architects, the independent ship design company integrating the ammonia system; and Feeney Shipyard, which supplied the tugboat and will lead retrofitting construction and engine removal under the supervision of C-Job Naval Architects. Additionally, it is working with Unique Technical Solutions — its electrical and systems integrator from prior demonstrations — for the electrical and systems work involved in scaling up the powerpack for pre-commercial use.

The maritime industry is scrambling to replace dirty diesel fuel with cleaner alternatives. Amogy claims its proprietary ammonia-to-power technology that converts ammonia to electric power effectively and efficiently may be just what is needed to reduce carbon emissions from shipping.

Amogy has been working with the United States Coast Guard and partnering with leading classification society DNV to ensure close alignment with all maritime safety standards. “DNV has been working with Amogy since December 2021, focusing on the safety aspects of the development of their ammonia system,” says Hans-Christian Wintervoll, DNV’s senior consultant in maritime environmental technology. “A high level feasibility study was executed in early 2022 and Amogy has shown great momentum in development from that point through the HAZID workshop in June the same year, to the HAZOP workshop in January this year. DNV is pleased to contribute to their continued success.”

To date, Amogy has raised $70 million in funding from investors such as Amazon, Saudi Aramco, SK Innovation, AP Ventures, and DCVC. Amogy intends to sail the tugboat later in 2023 in upstate New York, pending further safety testing and regulatory discussions.

Ammonia & Efficiency

Ammonia is composed of one nitrogen atom combined with three hydrogen atoms. The fact that it has those three hydrogen atoms makes it appealing to those whose eyes light up when they think of the wonders a hydrogen economy could make possible. Hydrogen is hard to transport, but can be converted into ammonia, which is easier to transport despite being highly corrosive and toxic. Then it can be converted back to hydrogen when needed.

That’s the theory. The reality is that every energy conversion is less than 100% efficient. Renewable hydrogen is made by passing water through a device called an eletrolyzer that uses electricity to split it into hydrogen and oxygen. Then the hydrogen gets converted into ammonia which in turn is converted back to hydrogen which is then converted to electricity in a fuel cell. Are you seeing the problem here? From the point of view of using renewable electricity as wisely and efficiently as possible, wouldn’t it be better to simply use it to power electric motors in the first place? Norway has abundant hydropower, but abundance is not an excuse for being profligate.

My colleague Michael Bernard published an article recently about using methanol to power ships — an idea he disparages because all those conversions lead to enormous losses before any work gets done. I sent Michael an email asking him if he had a higher opinion of ammonia. He replied that it has many uses in agriculture, but virtually none as a fuel.

“Ammonia is worse than methanol as a fuel. Similar cost challenges; similar problems with decarbonizing. It’s a waste of low carbon electricity. More toxic than methanol in its liquid form. It turns into a very corrosive substance when exposed to water and then turns into a third chemical which is also pretty bad for human health.

“Ammonia is great stuff. 30 million tons of it is turned into fertilizer every year, which is job one. Everything that we eat that isn’t fish or pasture raised animals is made up in part of ammonia that grows crops and animal feed. If we use green ammonia to maximize dual cropping of food and cellulosic biofuels, we get a lot more bang for our buck because we decarbonize agriculture and help nature give us a lot more energy to turn into biofuels.”

Yara may make some green hydrogen from renewable energy, but the vast majority of the ammonia it makes comes from converting methane gas using high temperature steam, a process that creates large quantities of greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, there is a high probability of greenwashing going on here. “Oh, look over here! We are making zero emission fuels for shipping! Don’t look over there where we are creating lots and lots of carbon emissions.”

The Amogy announcement took place at the annual CERAWeek conclave — which Bill McKibben calls “the hydrocarbon world’s biggest festival, a Davos for carbon. Energy executives gather to crow about their successes and whine about insufficient government support. Government officials often gather with them… offer solace and subsidies” — which only sharpens the sense that the Amogy story is little different from what Exxon did all those years by trumpeting its research into making green fuels from algae.

The Takeaway

Ammonia-powered ships may be better than diesel-powered ships, but whether they are an answer to the massive carbon emissions from ocean transport remains to be seen. We report on technologies such as this to keep our readers informed. That doesn’t mean we endorse all of them. In the final analysis, systems that involve fewer conversions are preferable to those that require lots of them. Those loses involved in those conversions are wasted energy — a luxury the world can no longer afford.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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