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Leading a Carbon-Neutral Society with Fuel Ammonia

Ammonia, an inorganic compound of nitrogen and hydrogen, has long been used primarily as a raw material in manufacturing agricultural fertilizers and chemical products. Its potential as a next-generation fuel, however, is behind the renewed attention it is currently receiving in Japan, which aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. One possibility ammonia presents in this area lies in its ability to act as an effective carrier of hydrogen—an element already known for its great potential as a next-generation fuel. Another is the potential use of ammonia as a fuel in its own right, and efforts are underway to pursue this exciting development in next-generation fuels.

A key component of ammonia’s potential as a fuel is that it does not emit carbon dioxide (CO2) when burned. Therefore, ammonia would be a powerful tool in helping achieve a carbon-neutral society if it could be used for thermal power generation or maritime transport, which currently use fossil fuels as their main energy sources. Some power-generation companies are already exploring methods for co-firing (burning ammonia in existing coal-fueled boilers), while development on mono-firing (using ammonia as a single fuel) is also underway. The Japanese government, for its part, aims to meet its target of bringing three million tons of fuel ammonia into the country annually by 2030.

To help build a supply chain for lower-emissions fuel ammonia, Marubeni has been actively engaged in multiple feasibility studies since 2021. In one study, the company is looking at the feasibility of a potential supply chain for such fuel from Australia to Japan in collaboration with six partners: Japan Organization for Metals and Energy Security; Hokuriku Electric Power Company; The Kansai Electric Power Co., Inc.; Tohoku Electric Power Co., Inc.; Hokkaido Electric Power Co., Inc.; and Woodside Energy Ltd. Lower-emissions fuel ammonia is defined as fuel ammonia produced with a low-carbon approach, which combines traditional ammonia production (which uses natural gas) with CO2 abatement methods, such as Carbon dioxide Capture and Storage (CCS*) or Carbon dioxide Capture and Utilization (CCU**). Through this collaborative study, Marubeni and its research partners intend to increase the probability of creating a lower-emissions fuel ammonia supply chain by assessing various potential mechanisms, which include manufacturing fuel in Australia, transporting it to Japan by sea, and utilizing it for power generation and ship engines.

Working together to build up “something that is still virtually nonexistent”

“Our ultimate dream scenario is using renewables to produce ammonia, transporting it by ammonia-powered ships, and burning solely ammonia to make electricity,” says Jun Yoshida, who leads the fuel ammonia project at Marubeni’s New Energy Business Development Department. Based on his many years of experience from his previous assignment in the company’s liquefied natural gas (LNG) section, he explains, “Our mission—ensuring a stable energy supply—remains the same, but we are exploring next-generation fuels like ammonia to facilitate the transition from fossil fuels to carbon-neutral fuels.”

For a new supply chain to be successfully established, it is crucial that demand and supply are concurrently determined. Needless to say, there are a number of challenges that cannot be overcome by a single entity acting alone. Marubeni works hand in hand with its partners both inside and outside Japan, including government organizations and other businesses (such as power generation companies), as well as its internal partners within the company, including the Power Division, which has knowledge and experience in renewable power generation.

“We feel as if we are inching our way ahead as we try to make progress, but once a breakthrough comes and everything starts to move forward, we believe that we will see a grand future lying ahead,” Yoshida says. “To build up something that is still virtually nonexistent, we will continue to do our job step by step, persistently and steadily, working hand in hand with our partners.”

Carbon dioxide Capture and Storage (CCS): technology to capture and store CO2 emitted from factories and power plants.

*Carbon dioxide Capture and Utilization (CCU): technology to capture and effectively utilize CO2 emitted from factories and power plants.

All information contained in this article is based on interviews conducted in January 2023.