Aker to partner with renewable energy leader Uruguay in green ammonia plan

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Uruguay now has enough renewable energy production capacity that it exports wind power electricity to its neighbors. ©Getty Images - Albert Pego
Uruguay now has enough renewable energy production capacity that it exports wind power electricity to its neighbors. ©Getty Images - Albert Pego

Related tags omega-3 Krill oil CO2 emissions

So-called ‘green ammonia’ is central to Aker BioMarine’s recently announced plan to reduce its CO2 footprint. Key to the plan is a developing partnership with the county of Uruguay, which has become a leader in renewable energy.

Aker, the world leader in krill oil production for dietary supplements and aquaculture feed, recently announced the plan via a webcast.  The company has committed to cutting its  CO2 emissions in half by 2030​.  Aker CEO Matts Johansen said this is motivated by a need to comply with the EU plan to achieve the Paris Agreement mandates. Other regulatory bodies are following suit.

“The International maritime organization that regulates global shipping has a plan to reduce emissions by 50% by 2050,”​ said Christina Ianssen, Aker’s manager of sustainability and public affairs.

“That won’t be achievable by energy efficiency alone, so we are looking at alternative fuels,”​ she said.

Haber-Bosch process

Ammonia is called ‘green’ when renewable energy is used to produce it. Ammonia produced in this way is based on the Haber-Bosch process, invented and perfected by a pair of German chemists before WWI.   The process uses a catalytic reaction to convert non reactive atmospheric nitrogen into a reactive form that can be used for fertilizer and other products (including explosives).

At the time the process was perfected, there was concern that the world’s growing population would outstrip theoretical maximum food production and that wide scale famine loomed. The bottleneck in the food system was the amount of reactive nitrogen then available for fertilizer.

Atmospheric nitrogen, which makes up the majority of Earth's atmosphere, is tightly bound in a non reactive form and so passes unchanged through plants and animals.

The smaller store of reactive nitrogen is carried in the natural cycles of animals and plants.  Fixed from the atmosphere in plants at a low rate, or created in small quantities via certain atmospheric processes such as lightning, the reactive nitrogen is utilized by plants and animals for various biochemical processes and is redistributed via manure fertilizer.  The advent of the Haber-Bosch process made unlimited amounts of the element available in its reactive form.

Making ‘green ammonia’

By using renewable energy in the form of solar, wind and hydropower, the sun’s energy can be stored in ammonia, which can be used as a convenient fuel in engines set up use it.  Aker’s latest krill harvesting vessel was designed from the outset with a multi fuel capable engine.

“You can use it almost like a battery,”​ said Aker CEO Matts Johansen.

The switch to ammonia to fuel its vessels is a key element in Aker’s CO2 plan.  And a key player in that shift is Uruguay, where Aker’s krill harvesting fleet is based. Over the past decade the country has quietly made itself into the world leader in renewable energy production.

Uruguay leads in renewable energy

According to the US International Trade Administration, over the past 10 years, Uruguay has dramatically shifted its energy matrix from petroleum-based electricity generation to renewable sources​.  The country now  generates close to 100% of its daily energy needs from hydropower and wind energy, with some biofuels energy production mixed in.

The country has also become almost 100% electrified.  According to the ITA, Uruguay often has a wind energy surplus.  In 2019, the country exported renewably generated electricity to neighbors Argentina and Brazil in an amount equal to about 27% of the country’s annual domestic demand.

Now some of that surplus can be devoted to helping Aker and other shipping companies meet their CO2 reduction goals.  Johansen said it’s still be determined exactly how the partnership will unfold, but there is no doubt it is going ahead.

“We are working with the Uruguayan government. There are various support programs from the government, but we haven’t dialed in on any specific programs just yet. The green hydrogen/ammonia business is still young, and we believe more government schemes will be coming in the years to come,”​ Johansen said.

As the green ammonia system becomes more developed, Johansen said Aker can use vessels fueled in this way to close the other part of its loop, that being the shipping of its raw material from Uruguay to its main processing plant in Houston.

Controlling NOx emissions

Nothing comes for free, and in the case of green ammonia the tradeoff is the accumulation of ever more reactive nitrogen into the biosphere.  The growth of this resource has been blamed for the spread of oceanic dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea and Baltic Sea and off the coast of China.  Ianssen said mitigation of nitrogen oxides emissions via clean combustion technologies and catalytic exhaust scrubbers will have to be part of the plan.

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