Blue ammonia from the Gulf States should make us less dependent on Russian natural gas in the medium term and enable lower-emission power generation and industry. But what is behind the fabric? Here’s what you need to know about blue and green ammonia.

When Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) traveled to Qatar in March, it was not just about possible deliveries of liquid natural gas, but also about deliveries of blue ammonia. The first test delivery should arrive in a few weeks. It is destined for the copper producer Aurubis in Hamburg.

Ammonia was also an issue during Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s (SPD) visit to the United Arab Emirates last week. He brought with him managers from German companies such as Thyssenkrupp and Siemens Energy, which are already working on ammonia production plants in Saudi Arabia and also want to sign corresponding contracts with the Emirates. The ammonia produced here is then to be exported to Germany, although it will take a few more years before mass deliveries can be made.

Ammonia is a molecule made up of one part nitrogen and three parts hydrogen. It is one of the world’s most produced chemicals because it is used as a base for many other chemicals. The best known is its further processing by the Haber-Bosch process in fertilizer. However, ammonia is also processed into nitric acid, which in turn is the basis of many explosives. The third important use of ammonia is further processing into dyes and certain plastics.

Renewable energies have a problem: they do not produce electricity evenly, but often in batches. When it is dark at night, the photovoltaic system is idle. A wind wheel does not turn when there is no wind and so on. In addition, a lot of electricity could be generated from renewable energies where it is not needed – for example in the hot and sunny Gulf States.

Ammonia could be the solution to this problem. The idea is to use renewable energies to extract the two components nitrogen and hydrogen from air and water. The resulting ammonia can be easily transported in tankers. Once in Germany, it could then be burned. The energy gained from this could either operate a factory – as Aurubis and the steel manufacturer Salzgitter are planning – or drive turbines in a power plant to generate electricity. The advantage: When ammonia is burned, only nitrogen and hydrogen are produced as exhaust gases, neither of which are harmful to the environment.

Ammonia is referred to as “green” if its components are obtained with the help of renewable energies. Only minimal emissions are then produced, for example during transport. “Blue” ammonia is obtained with the hydrogen from natural gas, but as much of the resulting carbon dioxide as possible is captured and stored.

Qatar has the world’s largest natural gas reserves, the famous North Gas Field. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have the fifth and seventh largest natural gas reserves in the world. This already makes the three countries predestined for the production of blue ammonia. But all three states also know that their fossil reserves are finite and are therefore looking for sectors of the economy that will still generate income even without natural gas. Green ammonia would be a good choice, after all the Arabian Peninsula offers enough desert and sunshine for profitable solar systems. With the help of ammonia, this energy could then be exported all over the world.

Another advantage: the LNG terminals for liquid natural gas that already exist in the Gulf and are currently being built in Germany can also be used to ship ammonia.

Germany adopted the National Hydrogen Strategy in 2020. This provides for the expansion of hydrogen as a future energy carrier. To this end, capacities for the electrolysis of hydrogen with a capacity of at least ten gigawatts are to be built up in Germany. In addition, the Federal Government has already concluded cooperation agreements with Australia, New Zealand, Canada and countries in West Africa, as it has with the Gulf States. According to the Federal Ministry of Research, green hydrogen with an energy of 165,000 terawatt hours could theoretically be produced annually in the 31 West African countries with which Germany wants to cooperate. That would correspond to 317 times the annual German energy consumption. But it is only a theoretical number, after all, all possibilities would have to be optimally expanded.

In all cases, however, ammonia would be the means of choice for transporting the green hydrogen to Germany in a practicable manner. By cooperating with as many countries as possible, the federal government also wants to avoid the problem of ultimately being dependent on one supplier, as is the case with natural gas.

Although the use of ammonia would significantly improve Germany’s carbon footprint, it is not without controversy. In the short term, the question arises as to what happens to the CO2 that is produced during the production of blue ammonia. According to a report by Bloomberg, Abu Dhabi’s national oil company, for example, is currently only able to capture 70 percent of the greenhouse gases produced. These are then pumped into oil fields to push oil up from strata that are difficult to access. The production of blue ammonia thus indirectly promotes oil production, which significantly worsens the climate balance.

From a scientific point of view, ammonia has the disadvantage that its energy density is significantly lower than that of petrol, for example. One kilogram of ammonia contains 6.25 kilowatt hours, while one kilogram of petrol contains more than twice as much at 12.7 kilowatt hours.

Theoretically, hydrogen could also be liquefied or shipped in gaseous form. So why the detour via ammonia? Well, the latter is easier and safer to transport. Ammonia is liquid from minus 33 degrees, with hydrogen minus 253 degrees would be necessary. As a result, ammonia can be transported in thinner containers under less pressure. This almost completely offsets the energy required to produce ammonia. In addition, measured by volume, ammonia has a higher energy density than molecular hydrogen. In a tank of the same size, more energy can be shipped in ammonia than in pure hydrogen.

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