In a significant change, the government is prioritizing the use of ammonia to generate renewable electricity in order to achieve its target of reducing Japan’s greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050.
While hydrogen has been a popular energy source for some time, Japan has only recently become involved in using ammonia in power plants.
Ammonia releases no carbon dioxide (CO2) when burnt, raising hopes that it might rewrite Japan’s energy policy by replacing coal, which is infamous for its high CO2 emissions.
The fuel ammonia industry was selected as one of the prioritized fields in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry’s “green development policy” action plan, which was declared at the end of 2020.
By 2023, Japan hopes to have developed the technology to burn ammonia-mixed fuel in coal-fired thermal power plants. It aims to bring a fuel with a 20 percent ammonia content on a calorie basis into realistic use by 2025 or later.
It aims to achieve 100% ammonia-fired thermal power generation technology by 2040 or later.
As a baseload power station, such technologies may provide a reliable power supply with no CO2 emissions, competing with nuclear power or coal-fired thermal power plants.
It is hoped that ammonia-fired thermal power would be able to replace clean energy sources that lack power generation stability.
Though both hydrogen and ammonia emit no CO2 when burning, ammonia is simpler to treat.
Liquid ammonia should be maintained at 33 degrees below freezing, while liquid hydrogen must be held at 253 degrees below zero or below.
Ammonia-related services, such as storage containers, are less expensive than hydrogen, and ammonia is often faster to ship.
The greatest barrier to using ammonia as an energy source, though, could be a shortage of ammonia in Japan.
In 2019, Japan’s domestic ammonia intake was about 1.08 million tons. To accomplish the plan of using 20% ammonia in coal-fired power, approximately 20 million tons of ammonia, equal to the annual volume of ammonia exchanged globally, will be needed.
To increase production, a council composed of the economy ministry and private sector businesses such as ammonia plant builders compiled a report on Feb. 8 stating that the government intends to create domestic supply chains for 3 million tons of ammonia in 2030 and 30 million tons in 2050.
Since hydrogen is needed to synthesize ammonia, it must be extracted from natural gases or obtained by breaking down water with renewable electricity.
The council envisioned ammonia processing plants being constructed in areas suitable for such operations, such as North America and Australia, and supply chains being developed for Japan.
The government would also attempt to save costs by increasing the volume of ammonia distributed and advancing improvements on how it is processed and exported.
It was determined that ammonia-fired power generation costs 12.9 yen (12 cents) per kilowatt hour with a combination of 20% ammonia and 23.5 yen using ammonia alone.
It is much less expensive than helium, which has enormous transportation costs. However, it is also more costly than coal-fired thermal electricity, which costs just 10.4 yen per kilowatt-hour.
Initially, the government considered using ammonia in a somewhat different manner. Between fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2018, the Cabinet Office pursued a research and development initiative aimed at temporarily converting hydrogen into ammonia and transporting it.
It hoped that figuring out how to do so would enable it to move a large volume of hydrogen from production areas outside of Japan at a low cost.
However, the research team found during the process that it could be cheaper to burn ammonia itself at power generation facilities.
One impediment was that toxic nitrogen oxides (NOx) are released when ammonia is burnt, but technological advances enabled the amount of emissions to be reduced to levels below environmental requirements.
However, the use of ammonia as a fuel did not garner much interest as the use of hydrogen became the primary concern.
According to people familiar with fuel materials, economy ministry officials in charge of Japan’s fossil fuel policies, such as liquefied natural gas, placed a new spotlight on the use of ammonia last year.
With the Middle East’s oil supply situation being uncertain, the government classified fuel ammonia as one of its anti-global warming initiatives for the first time in March 2020 as part of a new foreign material plan compiled by the department.
The government announced a 2050 strategy at the end of last year, indicating that power generation powered by hydrogen and ammonia would account for around 10% of Japan’s overall electricity supply.