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Climate change and energy

This unlikely fuel could power cleaner trucks and ships

How one startup wants to fuel up tractors, trucks, and even ships with a common fertilizer ingredient.

an Amogy ammonia-powered tractor at a farm

This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review's weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

Last Friday, I hoisted myself up a ladder and plopped down into the seat of a bright green John Deere tractor. There wasn’t a cornstalk or a soybean sprout in sight—my view through the windshield was a fairly typical parking lot in Brooklyn. 

I’d asked to climb aboard the tractor to get a look inside of one of the only vehicles in the world that can run using a surprising fuel: ammonia. The chemical is typically used for fertilizer, but a New York–based startup, called Amogy, is developing technology that can help it power electric tractors, trucks, and even ships. I visited Amogy’s headquarters to find out why so many companies in transportation are looking into new fuels, and where ammonia might fit in. 

Starting up

Transportation is a huge piece of the climate puzzle, accounting for over 15% of worldwide global greenhouse gas emissions. And while we’re making steady progress thanks to electric vehicles, trains, and the like, there are parts of the puzzle that are harder to solve, like vehicles that need to venture long distances or run for long durations without stopping to charge.

Amogy thinks the key to solving this problem lies in ammonia. It’s one of the world’s most widely shipped chemicals today, since it’s used to make fertilizer. And it’s relatively convenient, packing a lot of energy into a small space without weighing too much to cart around. 

“What’s missing in the market is the way of using ammonia,” says Young Suk Jo, Amogy’s chief technology officer. “That’s what we’re developing.” 

The basic goal behind the company’s tech is to pull apart ammonia into its constituent parts: hydrogen and nitrogen. The hydrogen can then be used in a fuel cell to generate electricity, while the nitrogen gas by-product is safely released into the atmosphere (which is mostly nitrogen anyway). 

This is called ammonia cracking, and one of the company’s key inventions is a chemical catalyst that helps that reaction run efficiently at a lower temperature than what’s typical today. Amogy combines that cracker with a control system, technology that cleans up any leftover ammonia from the reaction, and a fuel cell. Together, all those components can basically transform ammonia into electricity.

Amogy started out by demonstrating its system on a drone in 2021. That first setup produced an average of about five kilowatts of electrical power. Next up was the tractor, which the company retrofitted with an ammonia-to-power system that’s about 20 times more powerful than the drone demonstration system. (The additional equipment is fairly obvious on the tractor, giving me a pretty big blind spot on the right side from where I sat in the cab.) Finally, the company ran a semi truck in January of this year, using a 300 kW system. 

All those demonstration vehicles helped attract attention, including some from investors: the company closed a $150 million funding round earlier this year. But Amogy has its sights on even bigger machinery: ships. 

Shipping out

Companies trying to cut their climate impacts in the marine shipping sector are looking to alternative fuels, including methanol and ammonia. Amogy’s system could be a better option than combustion engines, though, since it would limit pollution that can trap heat in the atmosphere and harm human health and the environment. 

I’ll note here that ammonia itself isn’t very pleasant to be around, and in fact it can be toxic. Proponents argue that safety protocols for handling it are pretty well established in industry, and professionals will be able to transport and use the chemical safely. 

Amogy’s systems aren’t quite big enough for ships yet. The company is working on one more demonstration that will help it get closer to a commercial system: a tugboat, which it plans to launch later this year in upstate New York. 

Eventually, the company plans to make modules that can fit together, making the systems large enough to power ships. Amogy’s first commercial maritime system will be deployed with Southern Devall, which transports ammonia on barges today in the US. 

Global ammonia production topped 200 million metric tons in 2022, most of it used for fertilizer. The problem is, the vast majority of that was produced using fossil fuels. 

For Amogy’s systems to cut emissions significantly, they’ll need to be powered by ammonia that’s made without producing a lot of greenhouse-gas emissions, likely using renewable electricity or maybe carbon capture systems. 

According to Amogy’s estimates, supply for these low-carbon ammonia sources could reach 70 million tons by 2030. But those projects will need to make it out of the planning stages and actually start producing ammonia before it can be used in fertilizers, tractors, or tugboats. 

Related reading 

  • Making low-carbon ammonia could require a whole lot of green hydrogen

Another thing

There’s a lot of money flowing into ocean chemistry. A new initiative called Carbon to Sea is injecting $50 million over the next five years into a technique called ocean alkalinity enhancement. The basic idea is that adding alkaline substances into seawater could help the oceans suck up more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, combating climate change. 

The new group’s goals include eventually conducting small field trials, advancing policies, and working to measure and verify efforts in the space. Check out my colleague James Temple’s story for the full scoop. 

Keeping up with climate

California’s largest insurer, State Farm, announced that it will stop accepting applications for most types of insurance in the state, citing “rapidly growing catastrophe exposure.” (New York Times) Allstate quietly adopted the same policy several months ago, also citing worsening climate conditions. (New York Times)

Every year around this time, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere reach a new record. But the increase this year is the highest ever. (Washington Post)

EV chargers are a lot more common than they used to be, and a lot less common than they need to be. Reliability and availability will both need to improve for more consumers to be comfortable switching to EVs. (The Atlantic

→ Here’s where all the fast chargers are in the US (as of summer 2022, at least). (MIT Technology Review)

A startup called Equatic is zapping seawater in an attempt to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. (The Verge)

A new class action lawsuit in California takes aim at Delta Airlines and the company’s claim to be “carbon neutral”. The lawsuit says that the offsets the company relies on don’t deliver the impact they promise. (Washington Post)

→ To understand how offsets can actually end up adding carbon pollution into the atmosphere, check out this investigation of California’s program. (MIT Technology Review)

An opinion piece about the climate impacts of EVs got a lot of attention over the weekend, because it was written by the actor who plays Mr. Bean (I am unfortunately 100% serious). Here’s a story to set the record straight. The short version: EVs are better for the climate than gas-powered vehicles in nearly all cases. (Inside Climate News)

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