Could ammonia fuel a new energy economy?
For the majority of us, when we think of ammonia, we probably conjure up an image (and smell!) of household cleaning products or garden fertilisers.
But according to a small group of researchers in the US, we could soon be using the putrid smelling substance to fill up our cars.
The team from Iowa University believe that solar thermal power could soon be used to produce ammonia to help develop a new energy economy, as the energy industry continues with it’s quest to find an affordable, sustainable replacement for fossil fuels.
But what’s the big deal about ammonia?
Well aside from Hydrogen, it’s the only other alternative fossil fuel that is both carbon free and can be produced from any energy resource. It can be used in current vehicle engines and fuel and gas plants with only minor modifications and, unlike Hydrogen, can be distributed using existing gas and oil pipelines.
Perhaps most significantly, from an environmental perspective at least, it can be produced using sunlight.
What might be surprising to learn, however, is that the use of ammonia as a fuel is nothing new. In fact, over the course of the last 100 years it has been used to power everything from Belgian buses in the Second World War to the X-15, the fastest manned rocket-powered aircraft of all time.
Lack of Subsidies
So taking all of this into consideration, can we expect to be using ammonia as an alternative energy source any time soon?
The answer is probably not. At this point in time, it’s simply too expensive for developers to produce using solar power, compared to the production of ammonia using natural gas, for example, which is significantly cheaper but far more harmful to our environment.
Unfortunately there are currently no subsidies in place for the production of fuels using solar thermal power, so the reality is that until developers can find a way to make it an economically viable option to pass onto the consumer, they simply won’t invest in building the plants needed for this type of fuel synthesis, regardless of the benefits to our environment.
With all of this in mind, it looks unlikely that we’re going to be filling up our cars with ammonia, for the time being at least.