Researchers Warn of Potential Environmental Harms of Ammonia

Researchers Warn of Potential Environmental Harms of Ammonia

The shipping industry is in the midst of a ‘great fuel transition’, moving away from traditional bunker fuels to low-carbon alternatives. However, one of the leading low-carbon alternatives - ammonia - despite being a carbon-free fuel, could result in a number of potential environmental harms according to researchers. 

The researchers, from the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, have carried out life cycle analyses for batteries and for three electro-fuels; hydrogen, methanol, and ammonia. 

Whilst ammonia is being touted as one of the most viable alternative marine fuels, particularly given its high energy density and relatively easy liquefaction, it has a number of drawbacks according to the study. 

The life cycle analysis conducted by the researchers found that the production of ammonia is very energy intensive. It also has a higher environmental impact than traditional fuels in terms of human toxicity, the use of resources such as metals and minerals, and water use (the same applies to hydrogen and methanol according to the analysis). 

Furthermore, ammonia’s use as a marine fuel can affect air and water quality due to ammonia leakage and the emission of nitrogen oxides such as N₂O. 

According to one of the researchers, Selma Brynolf:

“Although ammonia is carbon-free, its combustion in engines is not free from greenhouse gas emissions. Engine tests have shown varying degrees of emissions of N₂O, (also referred to as laughing gas), which is a very potent greenhouse gas with more than 200 times the global warming impact than carbon dioxide”.

Among the other environmental issues that can be linked to ammonia combustion are eutrophication (algal-driven oxygen depletion in water) and acidification (increasing the acidity of water and soils).

Another of the researchers, Fayas Malik Kanchiralla, explains: 

“Among the environmental problems that can be traced to the use of ammonia are eutrophication and acidification. Even though green ammonia is a fossil-free and relatively clean fuel, it is probably not green enough for the environment as a whole. More risk assessments on the emissions of ammonia, and the related nitrogen compounds, need to be done before adopting this fuel for shipping”.

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Adam Whittle
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