Splitting seawater for hydrogen in the Never Never

February 24, 2020 |

Yara Pilbara!

It sounds a little like a fearsome incantation out of Harry Potter, and if it were, I think it would be a spell to prevent cool weather because Yara’s facility is located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, more specifically the Burrup peninsula, known elsewhere as Murujuga, one of the world’s weather records was set, 160 days without a daily high below 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s one of the largest sites in the world for the production of ammonia.

This week, a new direction for the region. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency announced $995,000 in funding to Yara to support a feasibility study for the production of renewable hydrogen and ammonia.

In this case, water-splitting, potentially using seawater, and definitely using solar PV. Western Australia is extremely well-suited to it, with one-third of all buildings in WA these days featuring rooftop solar, it says here. So much so that authorities have had trouble maintaining the baseload coal-based grid. Doesn’t help that WA’s grid is interconnected with, more or less, nothing. New uses for solar, instead of dumping excess supply onto the grid, are increasingly welcome in the Never Never.

The project

The feasibility study will explore the potential to make green hydrogen work at industrial scale at Yara’s existing ammonia production facility in the Pilbara.

Yara will investigate producing renewable hydrogen via electrolysis powered by onsite solar PV. The renewable hydrogen produced will displace 30,000 tonnes per year of hydrogen which Yara currently derives from fossil fuels. The blended hydrogen will subsequently be converted to ammonia with a lower carbon footprint and sold for further processing into domestic and international markets. The study will also investigate using seawater for electrolysis.

The Burrup backstory

You might wonder how and why we would want to decarbonize ammonia when ammonia doesn’t have any carbon in it.

And, you might well ask exactly what Yara is doing out here — aren’t they a Norwegian company with a Viking longship for their corporate symbol? 

The answer to both questions is fertilizer, that is ammonia, made originally from fossil natural gas. The abundant natural gas is converted from methane to hydrogen, and then mixed with air to make mineral nitrogen fertilizers in the form of ammonia. 

If you wanted to look at it, technically, as a shift from splitting fossil methane to splitting water, I wouldn’t disagree with you at all.

Before it was Yara around here, the company was Burrup Fertilizers, once owned by a colorful Indian-Australian, Pankaj Oswal, who ran into financial difficulties in the early 2010s as energy markets roiled, and Yara acquired the whole of the company by 2012. Apache was in the mix, some annoyed lender banks, and ultimately Yara.

The Yara plant in Western Australia

It’s a forbidding place, this region of Western Australia, known around the world as part of The Outback, as in Outback Steakhouses. Australians generally use it without the definite article, “Oh, Cyril, he’s gone outback,” and to many it’s still known as The Never Never. I spent a week out here once and it never dipped below 100 degrees, day or night, and the memory of the uncomfortable nights makes one shudder to think of 160 consecutive nights like that.

There’s Iron mining almost everywhere, and a bit of tantalum, too; if you’re a fan of that platinum-alternative, you’ll be well-educated on the joys of Western Australia. The railways from the iron fields head north and northwest, and the northwestern lines, owned by Rio Tinto, head towards the Burrup peninsula.

Your introduction to Western Australia’s northwest and it’s infrastructure. The Burrup region is the peninsula between Karratha and Dampier at top left

Karratha made an impression on the advanced bioeconomy for a period of years when a number of algae ventures headed up this way, for the abundant sunshine, CO2 from the mining industry, and the seawater. Aurora Algae was up here for quite a while, and Muradel too. Then they discovered the Pilbara’s other chief export — the wind, and the dust that blankets the region for that reason, and the ponds never reached their intended production rates at scale.

But Karratha is known in energy circles as one of the world capitals of LNG. There’s a large (12 million ton) LNG production plant in Karratha which produces for the local gas market as well as for Japan and South Korea, taking gas from the massive North West Shelf project. Hence the relatively abundant infrastructure for natural gas, hence the appeal for makers of ammonia fertilizer.

The long-term vision

In the long term, Yara is aiming to produce hydrogen and ammonia entirely through renewable energy. The study will be the first step on the path to achieving commercial scale production of renewable hydrogen for export.

Yara currently produces and exports approximately five per cent of the world’s ammonia production out of its existing facility in the Pilbara. The project will utilize Yara’s established trade partnerships and market expertise to export renewable hydrogen as ammonia from WA.

The partners

Yara will collaborate with global energy company ENGIE to deliver the feasibility study. ENGIE has a dedicated hydrogen business unit focused on developing industrial-scale renewable-based hydrogen solutions in international markets.

ARENA’s hydrogen initiatives

Under ARENA’s investment priority focused on accelerating Australia’s hydrogen industry, ARENA has committed approximately $50 million towards hydrogen initiatives so far, including over $22 million to R&D projects, and almost $28 million to demonstration, feasibility and pilot projects.

ARENA announced in November 2019 that we would commit up to $70 million in funding to a Hydrogen Deployment Competitive Funding Round in 2020. This process is progressing with consultation currently underway.

Reaction from the stakeholders

ARENA CEO Darren Miller said the feasibility study is another step to decarbonizing the mining and ammonia production sectors in Western Australia.

“Hydrogen has huge potential as a fuel of the future, and as a potential energy export for Australia,” Mr Miller said.

“Yara’s project will offer great insight into how Australia’s current ammonia producers can transition away from the use of fossil fuels towards renewable alternatives for producing hydrogen while continuing to leverage the substantial export capabilities that those companies have already established.”

“This project will support future investment in renewable hydrogen from our largest producers, which in turn will provide the economies of scale required to produce renewable hydrogen and ammonia at a competitive price for export,” he said.

“We appreciate that ARENA has recognized Yara and ENGIE’s complementary expertise and experience on this complex project via this commitment. ARENA’s support will assist in completing the feasibility study so that we can fully understand the opportunity for generating renewable hydrogen for use in our Pilbara facilities,” said Yara International Executive Vice President Production Tove Andersen.

“As an energy transition enabler, ENGIE is heartened by ARENA’s support for the joint project with Yara to decarbonize its ammonia production. This is also a great example of the government support for a renewable hydrogen industry to take off in Australia. ENGIE is ready to contribute.” says Michele Azalbert, CEO of ENGIE’s Hydrogen Business Unit.

The Bottom Line

One thing, you have to blow the dust off those solar units quite a bit to achieve the kind of productivity that a project like this will need to be feasible. And, there’s going to be an awful lot of salt brine left over after water splitting, or there’s going to be an awful ruckus about the wisdom of mining the limited aquifers of the region to support water splitting. This is a forbidding place when it comes to water. 

The word Pilbara itself means “dry” in an indigenous language, and I offer this photo of the main river, more or less, in  the Pilbara: this is the Robe, and you sort of get the idea — more a connected series of refugia waterholes than a flowing source of H2O for the water-splitters.

Having said that, the world is mighty short on renewable ammonia and seawater and solar PV is probably the most sustainable way anyone could think up to get it. So long as something is done with the brine, else there’ll be a fearsome clean-up.

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