Last Updated on 10/11/2020 by Piero Mattirolo
Re-publication of an article by Mario A. Rosé on Agronotizie
The trade association Hydrogen Europe is presented as a partnership between the European industries promoting technologies related to the use of hydrogen and the European Commission. This is a lobby, in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the term, or: "Group of people trying to influence lawmakers on a particular topic" (definition from the Oxford Dictionary ). We will not go into the merits if the interest of the association is that declared on the institutional web page - decarbonising the European economy- or the economic one of a group of multinational industries and spin-offs, or even worse, if it only serves to mask the hegemonic forces of the countries to which these companies belong under a "technical" appearance. In this article we will analyze what the consequences could be for our farms if the Italian government were to unconditionally follow the doctrine of "clean hydrogen" promoted by the Green Deal.
The link between COVID-19, clean hydrogen and green ammonia
The latest report from Hydrogen Europe, entitled "Hydrogen in the EU's economic recovery plans" (Hydrogen in the EU’s Economic Recovery Plans ) explains how the "firepower"Public aid to cope with the crisis caused by COVID-19 will favor the birth of a new society based on" clean hydrogen ". Specifically, the Next Generation EU fund, from the value of 750 billions of euros will finance projects to decarbonise the economy. In the period 2021-2027 the fund will donate 500 non-repayable billions e 250 billions in soft loans, and will be financed by issuing securities and establishing new taxes on greenhouse gas emitting industries: plastics, energy, steel, cement and fertilizers. In particular, to head (Common Agriculture Policy) took into consideration the problem of ammonia emissions attributable to farms, therefore there is a real risk that the EC decides to burden farmers with more bureaucratic burdens or even with a tax on emissions, to finance the Next Generation EU fund mentioned above. The aid package for the agricultural sector is called EAFRD (European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development) and it already existed before the pandemic, but his current budget of 19 billions will be boosted up to 90 billions in the period 2021-2027. Funding will focus on: "Promoting efficiency in the use of resources" and "supporting the development of a resilient and low-carbon economy". Translated from the bureaucratese, it means improving the energy efficiency of production processes, boost renewable energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The aid envisaged is a mixture of grants, subsidized loans and sharing in the share capital of companies, administered by individual states. What could be the lines of action that the Italian government will choose, to fulfill the plans defined by Brussels? By virtue of the ideological divisions within the coalition currently in government, it is difficult to predict what agricultural support policies will be in the short term. For now we can only hypothesize some possible actions consistent with the objectives set by Brussels as a condition for managing the EAFRD in line with the Green Deal:
- abolition of subsidized diesel for agricultural use and aid for the purchase of tractors operating with other energy carriers (eg: biodiesel, the now ubiquitous "clean hydrogen", biometano, perhaps also "green ammonia");
- promotion of the production and use of organic fertilizers;
- and finally, as Hydrogen Europe hopes, also the production of "green ammonia", that is ammonia produced with clean hydrogen.
Suppose the MIPAAF, for ideological thrusts, pressure from Brussels or for any other reason, decided to use the share of EAFRD funds for projects related to clean hydrogen in agriculture. The possible interventions would therefore be reduced to two: subsidize the purchase of clean hydrogen tractors or boost the production and use of "green ammonia". The first is, at the moment, theoretical only. The only hydrogen tractor news available is the model NH² ™ from New Holland , and a Chinese prototype very futuristic, remote controlled via 5G. The press release on the former is dated 14 November 2011 and there doesn't seem to be any updates (in September 2020), so it is probably an abandoned project, or at least stopped for almost a decade. The second is just a prototype, and even if the Chinese industry immediately brought it into production, it would not be financed because it was produced outside of Europe. This therefore leaves a single alternative in line with the Green Deal ideology: boost the production and use of "green ammonia". Let's see in detail what it consists of and what repercussions could have a hypothetical policy of MIPAAF in this direction.
The Haber-Bosch Process
About a century ago, under the pressure of war to produce nitric acid for the manufacture of explosives, the first pilot plant for the industrial production of ammonia was put into operation at the German chemical-pharmaceutical industry BASF (Badische Aniline and Soda Factory). The synthesis of ammonia occurs through the reaction of atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen, at high pressures (200 – 300 bar) e temperature (400 – 500 °C):
N2(gas) + 3H2(gas) ⇄ 2NH3 (gas)
This is an exothermic reaction, which produces 92 kJ / mol. The heat produced is used to generate steam, used in the same plant. The energy produced by the steam is not sufficient to power the entire process, as we will see later.
World production of ammonia is approx 150 million tons per year. 85% of the ammonia produced is transformed into nitrogen fertilizers, while the rest is used to produce polymers (ref. i ). Currently, the hydrogen used to produce ammonia comes from coal or natural gas, so the fertilizer industry carries with it a heavy carbon footprint. Green ammonia is nothing more than ammonia produced with "clean hydrogen" , which, however, is competitive only if funded with public money (if you see, by the same author, Green Deal and biomass hydrogen). What probability of success could a possible ministerial plan to promote green ammonia in Italy have? We observe that i ISTAT data on Italian ammonia production beyond the 2106 are blacked out "for the protection of statistical confidentiality", because the only remaining ammonia manufacturer in Italy is Yara. The Norwegian group, together with the French ENGIE, he has announced the launch of its "green ammonia" production project nine months before President von der Leyen officially announced the Green Deal . But the project will be carried out in Australia ...
At the present day, the largest and most ambitious project to produce ammonia with solar hydrogen in the EU territory belongs to the Spanish companies Fertiberia and Iberdrola and will be carried out in the town of Puertollano, circa 200 you're in Madrid.
Ammonia as an energy carrier for tractors
The US trade association Ammonia Energy Association aims to promote the use of ammonia - preferably the "green" one, but not only- as an energy carrier. In the years preceding the Chernobyl disaster, ammonia production was postulated as a way to accumulate excess energy produced by nuclear power plants (ref. i ). Today the directives of the Green Deal favor solar and wind power, but the concept remains the same: ammonia has a higher energy density - 11.308 kJ / liter against 8.491 kJ / liter of hydrogen (ref. ii )- and it is easier to store because it liquid in moderate conditions (beyond 10 bar at room temperature, figure) it is also compatible with the use of simple steel or aluminum containers. Unlike hydrogen, ammonia is toxic, but hardly flammable. It can be used in both internal combustion engines and fuel cells.
The technical feasibility of using ammonia as a fuel for tractors has been demonstrated in the USA with construction - more or less artisanal- of a prototype (figure 2) which uses a mixture of H2 and NH3 produced on site by solar panels. The overall efficiency of the ammonia production system is only 29 % : are needed 32,3 kWh to produce hydrogen, 11,6 kWh to produce nitrogen, e 6 kWh to synthesize one gallon (3,78 l) ammonia, which is equivalent to 14,6 kWh of primary energy. However, the American study does not report any data on the prototype emissions. It is known that the combustion of ammonia produces nitrogen oxides, the notorious NOx responsible for acid rain e 290 times more powerful than CO2 in terms of the greenhouse effect (ref. iii). The purification of these exhaust gases requires the installation of a washing system of the type AdBlue, but having larger dimensions and product consumption, because NOx concentrations are necessarily high when the fuel is ammonia.
Certainly the ammonia and hydrogen tractor works, but at the cost of a series of technological virtuosities and such a low overall efficiency, which in the end is not worth it. Having to encourage "green" technologies, the production of biomethane directly from agricultural waste and the on-site refilling of the tractor is much simpler and more immediate. It exists since 2019 a model of tractor to this for methane , organic and not, whose commercial launch has been postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic (personal communication of the Author with the New Holland Top Service Italy office).
Although there are no concrete provisions on this yet, there is a clear ideological contradiction in the agricultural development policies that the von der Leyen administration would like to pursue. On the one hand, there are rumors (already by the Juncker administration) on the intention to burden the breeders with technical and bureaucratic requirements, maybe even with a fee, with the aim of reducing NH3 emissions from intensive farming. On the other side, the Green Deal admits the incentive of ammonia production with public money, as long as this comes from "clean hydrogen", as if the emissions of “green ammonia” were different from the emissions of biogenic ammonia. It is clear that the billions planned for agricultural development based on "clean hydrogen" will certainly not go to farmers, but to a small group of industrial giants.
Final reflection: It would be easier, socially fair and technically simple, encourage breeders to install ammonia recovery systems of organic origin. Works that, Moreover, have been successfully tested in Italy by the CRPA (http://ammonia.crpa.it/nqcontent.cfm?a_id=16494), whose technology - called scrubber- has been consolidated for over a century, and within the reach of any metal carpentry workshop.
[i] Mario Rippa – Rippa's new chemistry – Italo Bovolenta publisher – 2016 https://online.scuola.zanichelli.it/chimicarippa/files/2016/09/15-Processo_Haber-Bosch_sfruttare_equilibrio_mobile.pdf
[ii] L. Green, An ammonia energy vector for the hydrogen economy, International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, Volume 7, Issue 4, 1982, Pages 355-359, ISSN 0360-3199, https://doi.org/10.1016/0360-3199(82)90128-8.
[iii] William L. Ahlgren, The Dual-Fuel Strategy: An Energy Transition Plan, Proceedings of the IEEE Vol. 100, No. 11, November 2012 , summary available on https://www.nh3fuel.com/index.php/faqs/16-ammonia/35-is-ammonia-the-ideal-energy-currency
[iv] Hideaki Kobayashi, Akihiro Hayakawa, K.D. Kunkuma, A. Somarathne, Ekenechukwu C. Okafor,Science and technology of ammonia combustion, Proceedings of the Combustion Institute, Volume 37, Issue 1, 2019, Pages 109-133, ISSN 1540-7489, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.proci.2018.09.029.