End of Russian gas: hydrogen and blue ammonia as a luxury alternative?

End of Russian gas: hydrogen and blue ammonia as a luxury alternative?

At a time when European countries are seeking to reduce their dependence on Russian gas, Germany relies in part on a source still little known to the general public: ammonia and “blue” hydrogen, presented as greener. Is right ?

Blue is the new green. At least for the Germans, in their frantic search for an alternative to Russian gas. From this perspective, a clue is increasingly being mentioned in Berlin, and one that also seems to be less polluting: ammonia and blue hydrogen.

To be precise, these are actually variants, supposedly less polluting, of ammonia, already used in particular for the manufacture of fertilizers, and of hydrogen. Variants that could be an alternative to gas or coal to produce energy.

50 shades of ammonia

On September 25 and 26, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz did not visit several Gulf countries with the sole objective of increasing imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar. He also met with representatives from the United Arab Emirates and, above all, Saudi Arabia to discuss imports of this blue ammonia and future partnerships for the production of more environmentally friendly hydrogen.

The same goes for Robert Habeck, the economy minister, who had already spoken about ammonia and blue hydrogen during a trip to the United Arab Emirates in March 2022. The Gulf countries are currently leading the race for this “green” gold. “. It is supposed to replace black gold.

After Robert Habeck’s visit, the Germans “began to adapt one of their port terminals in the north of the country to be able to receive deliveries of blue ammonia and store it,” says Agustín Valera-Medina, an engineer at Cardiff University who works in hydrogen and blue ammonia. Located in the coastal town of Brunsbüttel, about a hundred kilometers from the Danish border, this terminal must be ready before the end of the year… and the entry into force of the total embargo in Germany on Russian hydrocarbons.

Germany’s interest in blue ammonia is partly explained by the fact that “the price of renewable energies has fallen” and that this prospect “is beginning to become a realistic alternative”, says Richard Nayak-Luke, an engineer at the University College London, which notes that “the war in Ukraine has forced European countries to speed up the transition.”

If this option works for Germany, Europe could be encouraged to follow this path, underlines the American economic channel Bloomberg. Except it’s not as easy or as eco-friendly as it sounds.

Currently there is a whole palette of shades of ammonia and hydrogen. We are talking about grey, green, blue, turquoise and even pink hydrogen. It all depends on how these resources are made. Almost all of the hydrogen produced and sold comes from fossil fuel sources, such as natural gas or oil. This is called the “grey” variety.

Specifically, the most common method consists of “taking gas, such as methane, and water, which is heated to transform it and extract both hydrogen and CO2 from it,” explains Cédric Philibert, Senior Analyst for Energy Affairs at the Institute of International Relations ( Ifri). Therefore, it is a process in which both methane and CO2, two greenhouse gases, are involved.

Mission: capture CO2

Then, “65% of the hydrogen produced is synthesized and used to make ammonia”, specifies Agustín Valera-Medina. This ammonia is used massively to “produce fertilizers, but it is also used in the chemical and textile industries.

Ammonia is also important because it plays a role in the hydrogen trade. This gas is much easier to transport in the form of ammonia. When a country, like Germany, wants to import hydrogen from the Gulf states to use instead of Russian gas, it is first synthesized into ammonia for the journey before being converted back to hydrogen at its port of arrival.

“Ammonia is estimated to be responsible for about 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions,” summarizes Richard Nayak-Luke.

At the other end of the color palette is hydrogen green. It is developed using only renewable energy sources, such as the wind or the sun. The resulting ammonia is also “decarbonized”.

But this time the problem is economic. Because this paradise for the defenders of renewable energies is still very theoretical because the necessary installations are very expensive. Despite a drop in renewable energy prices, “green hydrogen still requires investment, and I don’t think it can have a noticeable impact on energy production until at least 2028,” says Gniewomir Flis, an independent analyst specializing in renewable energy. .

Between these two extremes there is blue. If the Germans are touting blue ammonia as a big step forward to decarbonize their economy, “the path put forward by Berlin since the Merkel era to hide the limits of its energy transition is a bit disingenuous,” says Volker. Quaschning, specialist in renewable energies at the University of Berlin, interviewed by the BBC.

In fact, fossil fuels are also found at the origin of blue hydrogen. The only difference with its “grey” cousin is “that we capture the CO2 during production to store it”, explains Cédric Philibert. Therefore, this greenhouse gas is not released into the atmosphere. This is an important nuance because therefore hydrogen and blue ammonia are not supposed to contribute to global warming.

Except that we are “at the beginning of the beginning of the commercial exploitation of blue ammonia”, emphasizes Gniewomir Flis. Currently there is only one country that produces and exports it: Saudi Arabia. And when Germany buys it, it is not certain that the planet will benefit from it, because here too it is transport that can pose a problem.

Dependence on Saudi Arabia instead of Russia?

First of all for transportation. “Between the production of hydrogen and the transport of ammonia in tank trucks, which are highly polluting, this process probably generates more CO2 than if the energy were produced locally from gas in Germany,” estimates Agustín Valera-Medina.

So, there remains the problem of CO2 capture and storage. “Current technologies make it possible to capture around 60% of the CO2 during the formation of hydrogen. I think the advance will allow to capture more than 90%. But there will still be some CO2 released into the atmosphere,” explains Gniewomir Flis. This is better than using gas or coal in power plants, but not necessarily ideal.

“We also don’t know what the long-term environmental impact of all the CO2 that will be stored underground is,” adds Agustín Valera-Medina.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, the captured CO2 is also used… to extract more oil. “It is not new or unusual to use CO2 because carbon dioxide increases pressure to release oil that would otherwise be hard to reach. But that puts the ‘green’ aspect of CO2 capture into perspective,” notes Bloomberg.

An argument that, however, does not convince the experts interviewed by France 24. First, “because there is always a part of the CO2 injected in this way to extract oil that will remain underground,” emphasizes Cédric Philibert. Then, because in the absence of CO2, “other wells would surely have been built to reach the deep deposits, which would probably have been even worse for the environment,” says Gniewomir Flis.

Finally, by betting on ammonia and blue hydrogen, aren’t countries like Germany an invitation to exchange dependence on Russia for another, that of the Gulf countries?

Indeed, Saudi Arabia and its neighbors have decided to take the lead in the hydrogen and blue ammonia sector. “They know there will come a time when they will no longer be able to export their fossil fuels and they are starting to diversify,” Gniewomir Flis said.

These countries could invest massively in green hydrogen since there are, in this region, vast extensions to install solar panel fields. But the blue variety has a very political advantage: “it does not disrupt existing structures, since it is the same actors and facilities in the oil and gas sector that are involved,” explains the independent analyst.

But for him, this is just the beginning of the adventure. There are projects in Norway, the United States, Australia and Namibia. Therefore, there will be “a much wider choice of exporting countries than in the case of Russian gas”, this expert wants to believe.

However, the best option remains to consider the use of hydrogen and blue ammonia as “a transition phase, pending the development of the ‘green’ alternative”, believes Richard Nayak-Luke. European countries like Germany are developing their infrastructures to store ammonia and hydrogen and when the prices of renewable energy have come down enough, they will be ready to launch their own “green” hydrogen production.

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