How Ammonia Can Play an Important Part in Hydrogen’s Future

Ammonia has the potential to unlock hydrogen’s enormous potential in the future of lower carbon emissions and greater energy diversification. But how? Our Pallamonia project might give us some answers.

The Pallamonia research and development program was initiated in 2022, when Hydrogen Mem-Tech received a grant from The Research Council of Norway for a three-year innovation project for the industrial sector, with the renowned Norwegian research institute SINTEF as partner.

The Pallamonia project aims to explore how ammonia can fit into the process of hydrogen separation enabled by Hydrogen Mem-Tech’s patented separation technology which utilises palladium-based membranes, produced by a SINTEF patented method. Hence the project name: Palladium + ammonia = Pallamonia.

Why ammonia?

Ammonia (NH3) is a colourless gas with a pungent smell. It is a well-known staple of the nitrogen fertilizer industry.

It is also regarded as a promising hydrogen carrier, due to some interesting features: The gas is easily compressed and is liquid under relatively normal temperature and pressure. This makes it ideal for transport and storage. Unlocking ammonia’s potential as a gamechanger in the green transition requires a lot of research, and Hydrogen Mem-Tech is proud to do its fair share of it.

“We are still experimenting and testing. In our context, working with ammonia in connection to hydrogen separation, the results show that the separator is well suited for environments containing NH3”, says Hydrogen Mem-Tech’s CEO, Thomas Reinertsen.

“As always, the crucial part after the initial testing phase is to scale up from controlled laboratory tests to full-size projects in real industrial facilities. That’s the exciting part, as we see a huge potential here”, says Reinertsen.

How does it work?

Hydrogen Mem-Tech’s hydrogen separation technology can separate high-purity hydrogen from pretty much any gas mix. Taking advantage of the fact that ammonia is a hydrogen carrier is at the heart of what we are trying to figure out in the Pallamonia program.

Process engineer Espen Tøndell is project manager for Pallamonia. The chemistry of all this is of course quite complex, but Espen takes a crack (pun intended) at explaining it in layman’s terms:

“We have our hydrogen separator, and we have ammonia. To run the ammonia through the separator, it needs to go through a process called cracking to release hydrogen. This happens in a reactor. One of our goals is to figure out how such a reactor can work together with our separator, without compromising safety or the purity of the hydrogen after separation”, says Tøndell.

How to solve the membrane challenge?

One challenge of combining ammonia cracking with hydrogen separation is described like this in the project abstract on the research council’s website:

“Investigations of long-term exposure to amounts of NH3 comparable with post-cracker industrial levels is necessary to develop optimal process conditions to ensure stability and long life-time of the membranes.”

In simpler words: Will ammonia clog the palladium membrane and shorten its lifespan?

“One challenge in this case is that the ammonia residue might reduce the hydrogen flow because NH3 restricts the membrane function, sort of like when hair and soap clogs your shower drain. That’s why we need to test the pressures and temperatures at which we run this process, to get the best result possible in terms of hydrogen recovery factor (HRF), product lifespan and that the hydrogen output holds the required purity. If we figure out all of this, we know if ammonia and hydrogen separation is commercially viable in the future”, he explains.

Can ships run on ammonia directly?

Which bring us back to hydrogen’s potential in the future of substantially lower carbon emissions and greater energy diversification. Can ammonia be crucial in unlocking the bright hydrogen future?

Ammonia is even considered to be a promising non-emission fuel source within the shipping industry. However, it is also a toxic gas, which makes it harder to utilize in these kinds of contexts.

“Dealing with ammonia is quite challenging. The downside is the toxicity, so that must be taken into consideration”, says Hydrogen Mem-Tech CEO, Thomas Reinertsen.

“But the upside is that it can be a game-changer, a key piece of the puzzle. If you can invent technology that can convert ammonia to pure hydrogen on the spot, it will be very interesting for shipping and other transportation industries. That’s what we are working on in the Pallamonia program”, says Reinertsen, and adds:

“In the future, we might even be able to create significant machinery that can run on ammonia directly. Straight to the source, so to speak. The scientific exploration we are doing in this project can potentially have a huge impact on the future of clean energy”.

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