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New funding to unlock the power of ammonia

7 August 2020

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Cardiff University scientists are making strides towards the large-scale generation of electricity from ammonia thanks to new funding.

The team based in the School of Engineering has secured almost £3m in funding both here in the UK and across Europe to enable them to accelerate the ground-breaking technology that they have already demonstrated on a small scale.

Ammonia, a compound commonly used as a fertilizer, has recently shown much promise as a fuel as it can be burnt in an engine or used in a fuel cell to produce electricity.

Indeed, a recent report from the Royal Society stated that ammonia “could form the basis of a new, integrated worldwide renewable energy storage and distribution solution.”

This is because ammonia does not produce carbon dioxide when it is burned, can be created using energy from renewable sources and can easily be stored as a bulk liquid.

The research team, led by Dr Agustin Valera-Medina and with seed funding from FLEXIS, is leading the way in terms of using ammonia as a source of carbon-free energy, having already created the world’s first demonstrator in which ammonia is created from renewable electricity, stored in a tank, and then used to generate even more electricity.

It turns electricity, water and air into ammonia and stores it in a tank, before later combusting it in a bespoke engine to generate electricity, feed back into the grid, or sell as a fuel, all without producing any carbon emissions.

Professor Agustin Valera-Medina Co-Director of the Net Zero Innovation Institute
Professor - Teaching and Research

A £1.9m project funded by the EPSRC is now addressing the issues of scale by improving the system so that it can cope with large-scale power generation.

A larger Horizon 2020 project, entitiled FLEXnCONFU, is exploring the use of ammonia blends. The £11.5m project, from which Cardiff University secured a further £1m for ammonia combustion research, is aiming at reducing carbon dioxide emissions by designing innovative, carbon-free solutions to back up more traditional energy generating systems.

Using state-of-the-art facilities that are housed at the University’s Gas Turbine Research Centre and the combustion laboratories within the School of Engineering, the team will be designing a bespoke combustion system for its implementation in a pilot gas turbine plant.

The ease at which ammonia fuel can be stored and then transported as a bulk liquid is one of the main reasons why it has become such an exciting and attractive solution to a wide range of industries across the world.

The aviation industry is just one area that has shown a lot of interest in ammonia, with Cardiff University researchers already engaged in an exploratory project to test the viability of ammonia as a sustainable aviation fuel.

Similarly, the research team has multi-million-pound research proposals in the marine sector, the heating and cooling applications for domestic appliances, and large furnaces to support UK industry.

Ammonia is also seen as a very flexible compound that can be used as route into other carbon-free energy solutions.

As well as releasing energy from ammonia in an internal combustion or gas turbine engine, the compound can also be ‘cracked’ back into nitrogen and hydrogen, thus freeing up the hydrogen as a fuel.

Hydrogen is a clean fuel that, when consumed in a fuel cell, produces only water, which makes it an attractive fuel option for transportation and electricity generation applications, such as in cars, houses and portable power.

This interest has led to further support from the government to keep ongoing bespoke research at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxford – research in which Cardiff University plays a leading role.

“Using ammonia for combustion purposes has ramped up in the last five years as novel systems have been developed to use the molecule in small power applications,” concluded Dr Valera-Medina.

“However, medium-to-large power generation is still a concern that requires further investigation, development and improvement to unlock the stored power from ammonia’s hydrogen content.”

“This new batch of funding means that Cardiff University now has the largest ammonia combustion programme in Europe, with publications that go from state-of-the-art research to the first book on ‘ammonia techno-economics’ ever published, so we really are leading the way in terms of creating a viable ammonia-powered energy system that is fit for the future, placing Cardiff University at the core of this exciting topic.”

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