LNG Stakeholders Have Something New To Worry About Now

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The New York Times lit up the Intertubes earlier this week when it leaked word that the Biden administration is reassessing its position on new LNG (liquid natural gas) export terminals, due to concerns over greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not the only thing the LNG industry has to worry about. Startups and legacy engineering firms alike are beginning to suggest that the overseas market for LNG is heading for a shakeup, and it’s all on account of a common household cleanser.

Lysol Takes On LNG For Hydrogen Transportation

If you guessed ammonia is the common household cleanser in question, run right out and buy yourself a cigar. Among many other uses, ammonia is a common ingredient in ordinary home cleaning products.

As for why ammonia could pull the rug out from under the LNG export market, the answer is pretty straightforward when you take the hydrogen angle into account.

Hydrogen is the grease that moves the wheels of the modern global economy, but it is a low-density fuel, which makes it expensive to ship around the globe by sea. LNG provides a workaround to that problem. LNG is more energy dense and economical to ship, and the hydrogen can be extracted at or near the point of use.

LNG primarily consists of methane, which has the chemical symbol CH4. Those four hydrogen atoms explain why LNG makes sense as as a transportation medium for hydrogen.

Another workaround is to skip the LNG and liquefy the hydrogen. That approach was considered far too expensive just a few years ago. However, more recently we noticed a surge of activity in the liquid green hydrogen field, with green referring to hydrogen produced from water in an electrolysis system, not extracted from natural gas.

Yet another workaround is to find something more sustainable to replace LNG as a transportation medium for hydrogen. Ammonia — chemical symbol NH3 — apparently has first dibs on the job.

The Ammonia Solution…

The ammonia transportation solution surfaced on the CleanTechnica radar back in 2019, in connection with a trade agreement linking Japan and Australia. The plan is to produce ammonia with green hydrogen, leveraging Australia’s considerable renewable energy resources to power the electrolyzers. Once the ammonia arrives in Japan, the hydrogen can be extracted.

On the down side, the plan involves a two-step timeline. The initial source of the hydrogen is to be brown coal, which Australia also has in copious supply. On the up side, the idea of producing green ammonia with green hydrogen in Australia also caught the attention of bp in 2019, so chances are that brown coal will have a relatively small role to play.

…Is Not So Simple, But It’s Do-Able

As one can imagine, the challenge is to extract hydrogen from ammonia economically. The LNG industry has a long head start in that regard, but apparently the ammonia stakeholders have worked out the kinks, too.

Some of the activity is taking place among the startup ecosystem. Earlier today, for example, we spotted a press release from the US startup Syzygy Plasmonics. To nobody’s surprise Syzygy is headquartered in Texas, which has become the epicenter of renewable energy activity despite, well, everything.

“Syzygy has pioneered a new technology that harnesses the energy from ultra-high efficiency artificial lighting to e-crack ammonia, removing the need for combustion,” the company explains, crediting Rice University in Houston for developing the underlying system.

The heart of the technology is the Syzygy’s trademarked “Rigel” photoreactor and proprietary photocatalyst, which the company credits for extracting hydrogen from ammonia with maximum efficiency.

“When powered by renewable electricity, Rigel cell stacks are designed to deliver no-NOx hydrogen from low-carbon ammonia,” Syzygy adds.

By no-NOx they mean no oxides of nitrogen. One of the challenges faced by those who would extract hydrogen from ammonia is to do so without intermingling it with nitrogen, and apparently Syzygy has solved that, too.

Syzygy has reached the production level of 5 tons of hydrogen per day at its testing center in Houston. “In 2025 we’ll be ready for 10-ton installations, and then for 100-ton projects in late 2026,” says Syzygy CEO Trevor Best.

More Bad News For LNG

Don’t just take their word for it. Last fall, Syzygy hooked up with the legacy engineering firm Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America, Inc. to accelerate its plans for bringing its technology to market.

“This investment will help Syzygy Plasmonics to accelerate commercialization and continue its development of innovative alternative technologies, particularly those that contribute to the hydrogen ecosystem and CO2 ecosystem,” Syzygy explained.

The German company thyssenkrupp is another legacy firm to jump on the idea of “cracking” hydrogen from ammonia instead of LNG.

“The use of ammonia as an energy carrier and means of transporting hydrogen has many advantages. Firstly, it is more energy-efficient to transport than hydrogen. Secondly, ammonia can be used to transport larger amounts of energy over long distances in less space,” the company explains.

“Thirdly, we already have a globally established infrastructure for transporting ammonia that is safe and efficient,” they pile on.

For the record, thyssenkrupp advocates for ammonia produced with green hydrogen, not natural gas or coal. The nitrogen in NH3 can be extracted from ambient air.

Even More Bad News For LNG

As if losing the hearts and minds of Mitsubishi and thyssenkrupp isn’t bad enough, the leading chemical industry firm BASF is also jumping into the anti-LNG pool. The firm is part of an industry-academic collaboration that includes Norway’s Wärtsilä as well as Höegh LNG, but don’t let the name fool you. Höegh is not a gas producer. The company specializes in building platforms for offshore LNG operations, and it apparently it is interested in applying its know-how to ammonia.

As reported by the maritime news organization Riviera, the consortium has received funding of €5.9M (about $6.5 million USD) from the government of Norway to develop an ammonia-to-hydrogen pipeline.

Norway is also interested in the green ammonia angle, which makes sense considering its access to offshore wind resources.

“Green ammonia acts as a liquid battery with a high energy density compared with alternative solutions for storing and transporting renewable power. The infrastructure for the large-scale transport of ammonia at sea already exists via a fleet of gas tankers having ammonia on the cargo list,” Riviera explains.

Interesting! Another thing that might be keeping LNG stakeholders up at night, especially here in the US, is the Biden administration’s new hydrogen hub program. The $8 billion plan to boost hydrogen production in the US includes a mandatory carve-out for natural gas, but the main emphasis is on green hydrogen from water electrolysis as well as biomass and other renewable resources.

Follow me @tinamcasey on Bluesky, Threads, Post, and LinkedIn.

Photo: The US startup Syzygy Plasmonics deploys artificial light to “crack” hydrogen from ammonia (courtesy of Syzygy via prnewswire.com).


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