February 4, 2011
The NH3 or ammonia for fuel effort has no central point to focus one’s attention, but constant watching has turned up an interesting effort centered in Lubbock Texas at the Whitacre College of Engineering at Texas Tech.
September saw the school tour Dr. Keith Kozlowski of the Air Force Research Lab at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida with an eye to teaming up for research grant efforts. News from The New Zealand Herald suggests sometime about then the school attracted consulting engineer John Fleming from New Zealand to join with the faculty and students. These by themselves don’t look like much in the U.S. until one has an idea of what Fleming is capable of as known down under explained in part by the Herald report.
Fleming, an Auckland University engineering graduate, is responsible for a string of inventions that produced more efficient, cleaner-burning heating appliances and holds a number of patents. He rose to prominence in New Zealand with Kent Heating, then with its parent Shell Oil. Now a consulting engineer, he has turned his attention to cutting the big issues raised by hydrogen down to size.
The attraction about Fleming is tangible contributions. The first is a small, cheap processing plant that converts hydrogen and nitrogen into ammonia using a compression and decompression system. The little plant provides on-site production of hydrogen-carrying liquid fuel, NH3. That solves the problem of storing and distributing (with considerable energy loss from transport) NH3 gas from large and expensive centralized plants.
The Texas Tech effort seems either based or improved from an electrolyzer Fleming devised for potential use in gas fireplaces. The Fleming designed NH3 processor offers huge cost savings in the production of hydrogen using electricity. The processor is suggested to cost $200US and is predicted to produce fuel for about 27¢ a liter, about $1.00 a gallon.
Shudders of dread might be passing through fertilizer producers at that news.
More encouraging is that Fleming can be just barely spotted at Texas Tech from orders for machining work to build what Texas Tech is calling the “Electrogen”.
The key man in all of this is Dr. Timothy Maxwell at Texas Tech, who was the guide for touring Dr. Kozlowski back in September. One might think Dr. Maxwell has high expectations of Fleming and goals that go right to an alternative fuel solution free of carbon, focusing on hydrogen with nitrogen as the molecular carrier, instead.
Fleming’s processor uses water as the hydrogen source, nitrogen from air and electricity. Because the plants can store electricity, they can make use of renewable sources such as wind, wave, solar and hydro-electric plants at off-peak times, making them even more efficient and viable. He says several investors are vying for the rights to commercialize the process.
Fleming was back in New Zealand over the holidays to garner support and identify opportunities for Auckland University’s engineering department to collaborate with Texas Tech. Fleming, an Auckland alumni class of 1968, credits the engineering school’s broad-based curriculum for his ability, and other New Zealand engineers, to solve problems outside their discipline – unlike overseas-trained colleagues whose skills are compartmentalized.
Fleming sees NH3 a little differently than most; in the short term ammonia fuel would be blended with petroleum fuels to run in existing vehicles. Over time though, vastly more efficient engines could emerge, because ammonia allows much higher compression ratios. A blend step with methanol or ethanol might be a diesel solution fully freed of fossil fuel. Fleming points out, “If you really want to take advantage of it (NH3), you go to much higher compression ratios using rapid injection devices with huge thermal efficiency improvements.”
NH3 poses some difficulties. Even though NH3 is already widely used in industry, safety codes are in place and, unlike hydrocarbons and hydrogen gas, it won’t blow up. Making NH3 safe to use and consumer friendly, developing high-pressure storage tanks to replace petrol tanks in vehicles are matters of prime interest.
NH3 can be liquefied, a solution in part for safety. Small processors solve the transport and distribution issues in a major way. The Texas Tech effort seems to be closing in on the production cost, too. That leaves the storage matter – a problem looking for solutions more likely answered by demand for engineering than research.
One would think that an economy faced with a fundamental need for very cheap energy supplies would move more hastily towards a very low cost source that bypasses the hydrogen era and goes directly to a nitrogen-hydrogen economy.
The motives are very basic. Cheap. Limitless. No carbon. Think about it.
4 NH3 + 3 O2 → 2 N2 + 6 H2O (g) (ΔHºr = –1267.20 kJ/mol) About half the energy density of diesel.