Hydrogen and ammonia, real alternatives for a net zero economy

12 September, 2023

Renewable hydrogen and green ammonia represent two pillars for moving towards decarbonisation and energy sustainability. The goal of decarbonisation is not a single solution, rather the more technologies and alternatives we can deploy, the simpler, safer and more expeditious the process will be.

Green hydrogen

Renewable hydrogen is produced from water and clean energy sources such as wind and solar. Its main advantage is that it does not produce pollutant gas emissions either in its production or in its use. Another advantage of renewable hydrogen is its versatility, as it can be used in a wide variety of ways:

  • Industry. In energy-intensive industrial sectors, such as steel, ceramics or cement, renewable hydrogen is the best alternative to replace traditional fuels. These industries have the need to decarbonise their activity, yet the most common alternatives to do so, such as electrification, are not sufficient to compensate for their high energy demand.
  • Sustainable transport. Hydrogen can power electric vehicles with fuel cells, enabling clean mobility and a range similar to conventional vehicles. It is also a viable alternative for heavy transport, both road, air and sea, sectors that are very hard to electrify.
  • Energy storage. In times of low demand, renewables can continue to produce thanks to hydrogen’s ability to be stored. In this way, energy is not lost, renewable facilities are more efficient and their production can be released to balance supply and demand.

Green ammonia

Ammonia is one of the most widely produced chemical compounds in the world for its many industrial applications. Its main use is in the fertiliser industry, but its role as an energy carrier (it is capable of storing energy and releasing it in a controlled way) is gaining importance, especially thanks to its ability to store, transport and release hydrogen.

Ammonia is gaining prominence, especially due to its ability to store, transport and release hydrogen

Ammonia is an important hydrogen carrier as green ammonia in particular is produced from the reaction of renewable hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen in a process using renewable energies such as wind and solar power, yet no CO2 is generated.

Its use in the energy sector is also very versatile, constituting another alternative to decarbonise the economy and presenting multiple advantages in different areas such as:

  • Storage and transport. There is a well-developed distribution network for ammonia, which provides savings linked to transport costs. In addition, green ammonia can be easily liquefied, which helps in its transport by tankers and ships. The storage and transport of ammonia has been developed over decades, making it economical and totally safe.
  • A boost for emerging economies. In regions with limited access to renewable energy, ammonia can be an ally as a clean fuel. Ease of import can also provide an ecological boost for remote regions or emerging economies.
  • Chemical manufacturing partner. Some chemicals that require ammonia to produce have an alternative in green ammonia that results in a more sustainable end product.

Hydrogen and ammonia, complementary

The combination of hydrogen and nitrogen produces ammonia, and when the latter decomposes it becomes an efficient hydrogen carrier, with a high hydrogen content. This makes ammonia a good option for large-scale hydrogen transport. For this reason, green ammonia could be one of the keys to exporting renewable hydrogen from countries such as Spain.

Green ammonia may be one of the keys to exporting renewable hydrogen from countries such as Spain

The use of liquefied ammonia to transport and store green hydrogen allows it to be distributed efficiently by sea. However, this procedure is not the most appropriate if the aim is to convert ammonia back to hydrogen. For this purpose, it is more efficient to transport renewable hydrogen in gaseous form by hydroproducts such as the future H2Med, which will link Portugal, Spain and France with other European countries such as Germany, and which will be operational in 2030.

Enagás estimates that Spain will be able to export 2 million tonnes of hydrogen through this pipeline by 2030, while a further 0.45 million tonnes could be shipped in the form of ammonia from various Spanish ports.

Although there is still some way to go in terms of regulation, technology and infrastructure, estimates show that ammonia and green hydrogen will be complementary and will enable Spain to become a hub for exporting renewable hydrogen to Europe.

R&D&I is key to unlocking the full potential of hydrogen and ammonia

The involvement of governments and their collaboration with the private sector is crucial to make this a reality. R&D&I is also key to unlocking the full potential of hydrogen and ammonia. Research, development and innovation are improving efficiency and reducing costs associated with the production, storage and distribution of both elements.

The impetus of the European Union and the support of the Spanish government are accelerating this transformation, in which the expertise of national companies is bringing us a step closer to a sustainable future. With a collective commitment, it will be easier to move towards a low-carbon and more environmentally friendly economy.