Phosphoric Acid, Phosphates & Fertilizers Experts

Yara: solar ammonia pilot plant, for start-up in 2019

Yara, the world’s biggest producer of ammonia, has announced that it intends to build a demonstration plant to produce ammonia using solar power, near its existing world-scale plant in the Pilbara, in Western Australia.

It expects to complete the feasibility study this year. Next year, in 2018, Yara hopes to finish the engineering design and begin construction so that it can complete the project and begin production of carbon-free ammonia in 2019.

The project has been in quiet development for some time but Chris Rijksen, General Manager of Yara Pilbara Fertilisers, made the announcement during his speech at a regional economic development conference for The New Pilbara in August, 2017.

If hydrocarbon feedstocks, like natural gas, can be replaced with renewable power, it will be a huge step forward for global sustainability. Today, ammonia production alone causes more than 1% of global carbon emissions, but there is reason to believe that renewable ammonia production could be cost-competitive already in certain locations – like in the Australian desert.

Yara isn’t the first to try this: the Raphael Schmuecker Memorial Solar-Hydrogen System, at Pinehurst Farm in Iowa, has been working on solar ammonia for a few years, with the aim of using it as both fertilizer for its corn fields and fuel for its tractor (that project, which is still in development, will be the subject of a presentation at the AIChE Annual Meeting in Minneapolis in November).

Yara is, however, by far the biggest company to build a solar ammonia plant, even if that means starting small.

Rijksen illustrated his talk with a process flow diagram to outline the “Renewable Route” for ammonia synthesis: the “Carbon Free Option using Sea Water, Air and Renewable Solar Energy.”

The small size of this demonstration plant is no indication of the market potential for solar ammonia production in Australia. Australia’s future clean-industry expansion is an idea I’ve covered before, with global corporations like Siemens working to make it a reality. If Yara’s demonstration system shows that larger-scale production could be competitive, there are two major steps in the ramp-up and build-out of this industry expansion.

First: scale up solar-ammonia production to the capacity of the existing Pilbara plant, replacing its huge natural gas purchases and carbon dioxide emissions with renewable power purchasing and no emissions.

Second: why stop at replacing one fossil-fueled plant – indeed, why stop at the ~200 million ton-per-year fertilizer market, when you could expand exponentially and start to export solar-ammonia into the billions of tons-per-year fuel market?