Oregon startup bets on ammonia to deliver clean energy

Ammonia is one of the most common chemicals on earth. It cleans countertops, fertilizes crops and keeps industrial freezers cold. But can it propel our cars into an age of clean-burning fuels?


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An Oregon startup sees a way to deliver the fuel of the future.

By Dan Sadowsky

Ammonia is one of the most common chemicals on earth. It cleans countertops, fertilizes crops and keeps industrial freezers cold. But can it propel our cars into an age of clean-burning fuels?

A small band of Oregon scientists thinks so. They own the rights to use an ammonia-based fertilizer known as guanidine as an engine fuel.

Their unique plan relies on a theory that is well-known to chemical and automotive engineers — that ammonia is a high-capacity carrier of hydrogen, often called America’s fuel of the future. But as the U.S. Department of Energy recently noted in a study of ammonia’s potential in a hydrogen economy, “If ammonia is to play a role in the transportation system, all associated safety issues must be completely resolved.”

To address that, the company proposes cloaking ammonia in guanidine, a safe and easy-to-handle substance that Don Hagge, CEO of Oregon Sustainable Energy, likes to say could “sell in six packs at the corner store.”

Hagge’s company plans to develop a product that turns guanidine into ammonia. From there, the ammonia can be “cracked” into hydrogen using existing technology. Hydrogen fuel is considered critical to the country’s automotive future because it can be made from renewable sources and burns cleanly in a fuel cell, a power-generating device that combines hydrogen gas with oxygen from the air to create electricity without emitting pollutants.

OSE’s guanidine-to-ammonia-to-hydrogen logic string piques the interest of government scientists and potential investors mainly because it could solve the biggest technical hurdle standing between today’s gas guzzlers and tomorrow’s fuel cell cars: hydrogen storage.

FUEL CELL CARS SIMPLY AREN’T FEASIBLE without enough hydrogen on board to drive at least 300 miles between refuelings. No one has yet figured out how to do that cheaply and compactly, while still meeting other technical benchmarks for hydrogen-storage technology, such as durability and weight. The problem is hydrogen’s relatively low energy density; even if the lightweight gas is compressed to 700 times atmospheric pressure — close to its limit — to hold enough you’d need a fuel tank so big it would crowd out other necessary engine components. Automakers and energy companies have teamed up with government engineers to test a number of other approaches.

“There’s a big push to find a hydrogen storage material,” says Tim Armstrong, manager of the Hydrogen, Fuel Cells and Infrastructure Technologies Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Efforts include a $150 million initiative by his employer, the U.S. Department of Energy. “All new materials like guanidine deserve a very good look, because they could be the one material we haven’t found that could be the real winner.”

That winner stands to gain a sizable chunk of what an industry analysis projects to be a $1.7 trillion fuel cell market by 2020. Hagge, a veteran of startups in the telecom, chemical-instrument and semiconductor industries, insists his company’s odds of success are good. Guanidine, he says, is renewable, storable, distributable, safe and clean, and overcomes the most significant objections to using ammonia to store hydrogen.

But the company faces several roadblocks on the road to commercial success. For starters, it must show that guanidine is worth the money and energy required to produce it and then decompose into ammonia. Laboratory work to determine those costs and to build a prototype reactor are expected to take 12 to 18 months. More importantly, Hagge and his colleagues must sell their idea to a government-led hydrogen consortium that remains largely unenthusiastic about ammonia, and to alternative-energy investors more interested in the here and now of biofuels than in long-term bets on an unproven market.


Hydrogen is considered the vehicle fuel
of the future, but it’s a lightweight gas that has defied attempts to squeeze it into a reasonably sized fuel tank.

Ammonia is an energy-efficient way
to store hydrogen — but it’s toxic.

Guanidine is a safe way of packaging ammonia. OSE thinks it may be the best way to store 300 miles’ worth of hydrogen in a car.

ON PAPER, AMMONIA LOOKS like an attractive way to store hydrogen. Made up of three atoms of hydrogen and one of nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient, ammonia is one of the world’s most hydrogen-dense molecules. “You can get hydrogen out of ammonia fairly easily,” says Kevin Drost of the Microproducts Breakthrough Institute in Corvallis. “The trouble is, people aren’t any more fond of having a tankful of ammonia in their car than a tank-ful of hydrogen.”

That’s because ammonia can be downright nasty. Prolonged exposure can cause bronchitis, pneumonia or fluid buildup in the lungs. Lab chemists who handle liquid ammonia — ammonia dissolved in water — wear goggles and gloves because contact can burn the eyes and skin. Releasing ammonia into the atmosphere can turn green plant leaves brown; spilling it into waterways, even at extremely low concentrations, can poison fish and other aquatic life.

Yet despite these and other noxious qualities, a small but growing number of scientists and chemical engineers say ammonia is a short- and long-term solution to the country’s petroleum addiction. They’re holding conferences such as the ones held in 2004 and 2005 at Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago titled Ammonia — The Key to a Hydrogen Economy, and touting ammonia’s advantages not only as a good hydrogen carrier, but also as a clean-burning fuel suitable for today’s internal-combustion engines.

One of the true believers is Ted Hollinger, a former Ford engineer who now directs the Hydrogen Engine Center in Algona, Iowa. He argues that ammonia is less dangerous than gasoline, and that an infrastructure of distributors and retailers already exists throughout much of the country’s midsection, where farmers rely on ammonia-based fertilizers to nourish their crops. And no one disputes his claim that ammonia holds more energy and pollutes less — including zero greenhouse-gas emissions — than gasoline.

To advance his argument, Hollinger plans to unveil four prototype ammonia engines this month and market them to farms and industrial plants. He believes automakers eventually will consider switching to ammonia-fueled conventional engines, too, if only as an interim step on the path toward fuel cells. “If you don’t have hydrogen and need a clean solution,” Hollinger says, “ammonia is the way to go.”

But outside the farm belt, at least, ammonia is unlikely to shed its reputation as a chemical to avoid. That’s why Oregon Sustainable Energy thinks guanidine, marketed as a more palatable form of ammonia, is a winner.

Three Portland-area scientists — Oregon State University engineer James Van Vechten, veterinarian J.D. Hultine and Portland State University chemist Bob Graupner — hit on guanidine a couple of years ago while musing about ways to make ammonia an acceptable fuel source. They ran some experiments in Graupner’s Hillsboro garage, bounced the idea off hydrogen experts and eventually brought on the more business-minded Hagge to help develop a product.

OFFICIALS WITH THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY’S hydrogen program give guanidine mixed reviews. On the one hand, it appears to overcome long-held concerns about ammonia’s toxicity and safety, says Sunita Satyapal, a chemical engineer who leads the program’s hydrogen-storage team. On the other hand, she says, it still presents many of the same problems ammonia does.

Even trace levels of ammonia can poison the type of fuel cell favored by automakers, she says, and today’s technology for cracking ammonia doesn’t meet certain performance targets set by the agency.

For those reasons, “we’re not really looking at ammonia for onboard hydrogen storage at the present time,” Satyapal says. “We’re interested in new concepts, new materials.”

But her agency has left the door open to materials such as guanidine. Its preliminary ammonia report, released April 25, rejects government-funded research for ammonia-to-hydrogen processing, except if there is a “novel” approach to storing ammonia. “This is very, very novel,” says Armstrong, the top hydrogen-program official at Oak Ridge, who puts guanidine atop his list of promising materials to test. 

Armstrong and Hagge are negotiating a deal to put Oak Ridge chemists to work optimizing a guanidine-to- ammonia catalyst. While Armstrong acknowledges that OSE’s technology is probably more feasible in agriculture or stationary-power applications than in vehicle engines, he adds: “If this thing were to work well and be very clean and safe and efficient and cheap, you never know what somebody might do with it.”

BUT IT MAY BE TOO EARLY for even early-stage investors to bet big on fuel cell vehicles. Ask knowledgeable people when a mass market for fuel cell cars will materialize and the answers range from 2020 to 2050 to never. Most venture capitalists want to recoup their investments within 10 years.

“We’ve never made an investment where we’ve banked on…the mass deployment of hydrogen-powered cars,” says Nancy Floyd of Nth Power, an energy-focused venture capital firm based in San Francisco. “That’s so far out that it’s not a market application we would bet on.”

Still, Oregon Sustainable Energy’s idea appeals to others in the energy-investment field, including Wayne Embree, managing partner of the Portland venture-capital firm Cascadia Partners. “If they have a demonstration vehicle running, and all they had to do then was scale up the technology and sell the ideas to both automotive and production partners, they could raise a lot of money,” says Embree.

Hagge says he’s met with venture capitalists and angel investors who might provide the $1 million he needs over the next year to extend patents, fund lab experiments and develop a prototype reactor. If that first phase is successful, he guesses he will need between $10 million and $50 million over the next four years to bring a product to market.

A five-year time frame might seem overly ambitious, given the history of pushed-back deadlines for fuel cell vehicles. But a summer of $3-a-gallon gasoline will only add urgency to the search to solve the hydrogen-storage riddle.

“All this activity suggests there are a lot of brilliant minds working on it,” says General Motors spokesman Scott Fosgard. “I’m convinced someone out there is going to be the next Bill Gates.”

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