Most consumers probably think of ammonia as a household cleaning agent with a pungent aroma, but that’s one of its lesser uses. Agriculture uses about 80% of it produced as fertilizer. Much of the rest is utilized as a refrigerant gas, water purifier, or chemical in making everything from plastics and explosives to textiles and dyes.
Now ammonia is being hailed as the future fuel for the maritime shipping industry because of the power it can generate and its environmental advantages. As the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) noted, the compound is plentiful enough to enter the market relatively quickly and offers a zero or near-zero-carbon solution.
Much of the technology in this area is still in the early stages, but the gas’s industrial uses so far form “a sound basis for increasing its use as a marine fuel,” the EMSA said.
It’s projected that the compound could become the leading fuel source for the world’s cargo ships by 2050. Now companies worldwide are sprinting to become the first to build a cargo ship powered by the compound.
A pair of projects are underway in Norway to retrofit vessels that supply offshore energy operations. One of the ships will have an ammonia-burning engine, and the other an ammonia-powered fuel cell. Meanwhile, a shipyard in China recently built the first ammonia-ready vessel.
One of the newer players in the market is Amogy, a Brooklyn, NY-based startup working on converting a 65-year-old tugboat into an ammonia-powered vessel.
Although it currently uses diesel generators and electric motors, the boat could be outfitted with an ammonia system by late 2023.
“Getting the first vessel on the water will be a really important step toward zero-emissions shipping,” said Amogy Managing Director Christian Berg.
Amogy was founded in 2020 by four MIT Ph.D. alumni who shared a vision of decarbonizing the transportation sector. All four are still with the company and include Chairman and CEO Seonghoon Woo, Chief Technology Officer Young Suk Jo, VP of Innovation Hyunho Kim, and VP of Manufacturing Jongwon Choi.
The team’s early research found that ammonia presented an “immense opportunity” in the transportation industry’s path to sustainability, according to the Amogy website. The startup’s goal is to reduce about 5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions by 2040 and help accelerate the journey to net-zero in 2050.
Amogy has plenty of financial might at its disposal, having already raised about $70 million from investors like Saudi Aramco, Amazon, and SK Innovation in South Korea. The company’s immediate plans are to install a 1-megawatt version of its ammonia-to-power system. That’s about 10 times larger than the unit the company tested on a John Deere tractor during the summer of 2022.
In the meantime, companies are working to address some potential drawbacks and risks of the gas. Although the compound is a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, it’s not the perfect solution.
Nearly all current ammonia supplies use fossil fuels in production, and its creation contributes 1% to 2% of all CO2 emissions. When it’s burned in engines, small amounts of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, and other pollution are released. The compound is highly toxic and can be fatal to humans and marine life if it spills or leaks.
Companies aim to work around some of these problems by transitioning to manufacturing facilities powered by renewable energy sources. They are also developing onboard fuel systems with added layers of safety to protect people and ecosystems and designing filters for harmful engine byproducts.