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The way ahead for sustainable fuels starts with the ammonia economy

The way ahead for sustainable fuels starts with the ammonia economy.

Professor Shanwen Tao, School of Engineering, Warwick

Climate change is a global challenge that if not confronted threatens our very existence on this planet. It is this stark fact that has captured the attention of people across the globe, including myself, to explore solutions.

Amongst the solutions is the expansion of sustainable fuels. However, so far, this has proven to be an extremely difficult area to both explore and understand.

Whilst the development of green electric vehicles is happening quickly, hydrogen and alternative low-carbon fuels such as ammonia are increasingly driving our thinking on sustainability.

The biggest challenges to hydrogen and ammonia related technologies are the poor stability of electrochemical devices such as electrolysers and fuel cells. Having completed a PhD in hydrogen fuel cells, this area has naturally captured my attention.

I consider myself very fortunate, as my research specialisms are closely related to green hydrogen, green ammonia, and fuel cells, which has enabled me to be part of a field that can truly contribute to a better, more sustainable future.

Based on my previous research and experience, I set out to explore the potential of carbon-free ammonia as a method of storage for hydrogen, with the aim of developing new materials and catalysts to improve the stability of green hydrogen and green ammonia production.

Ammonia economy as the starting point

In 2012, my research team and I published a review article on 'Ammonia and related chemicals as potential indirect hydrogen storage materials' in the International Journal of Hydrogen Energy.

Although we were not the first to coin the term 'ammonia economy' in that article, we described the big picture of ammonia economy and proposed to have an ‘ammonia economy’ before or in parallel with a ‘hydrogen economy'.

Since then, our article has received significant exposure within the field. This was a big motivation for me and has driven my research since, investigating fields closely related to hydrogen and ammonia.

My approach to researching this area centred around the development of new electrochemical devices and new materials.

Working alongside other researchers within the field of new materials, we discovered the first efficient redox stable anode material for solid oxide fuel cells. We also discovered a family of stable alkaline membrane materials for potential use as electrolytes for hydrogen fuel cells, ammonia fuel cells and, stable and low-cost alkaline membrane electrolysers for green hydrogen production.

As for new concept fuel cells, working together with colleagues I developed the first reversible/symmetric solid oxide fuel cell, the first low temperature direct ammonia fuel cell and the first direct urea/urine fuel cell.

This progress is something I am extremely proud of.

Whilst we still have a long way to go, our work into low-carbon fuels can potentially be utilised in relevant companies including many of our in the near future. These organisations are playing a big part towards global efforts to combat climate change, actively developing the electric vehicles that will be used by millions across the globe, as well as the infrastructure that will provide the basis for our future.

Not only this, but indirectly our research has extended beyond even this; climate focused decision-makers are drawing upon our findings as part our their approach, fellow researchers are using our work as inspiration for their own research, and countless sector specialists are championing our findings within the sector.

Attention in future research

Indeed, I am delighted that hydrogen energy and alternative low-carbon fuels such as ammonia are receiving more attention. There is an ever-growing consensus that these fuels will play a key role in the deep decarbonisation of all sectors of the UK economy, as exemplified by the publication of the government’s 2021 UK hydrogen strategy.

A thriving, low carbon hydrogen sector is essential for the UK government’s plans to build back better, with a cleaner, green energy system.

Technologies are crucial to tackling global issues such as global warming. With the continued support of organisations such as The UK Research Innovation (UKRI) promoting my research, and our numerous partners investing within our work, this will only grow.

Following an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) call to 'Become a hydrogen research coordinator' in September 2021, Professor Tim Mays from Bath University, Professor Rachael Rothman from Sheffield University, and I, applied for the coordinator roles in Research Challenges in Hydrogen and Alternative Liquid Fuels.

Fortunately, this application was granted.

This is where the future of our research is concentrated. As one of UKRI Coordinators in Research Challenges in Hydrogen and Alternative Liquid Fuels, I will do my best to serve the UK, applying my knowledge and experience to these extremely exciting areas and help play a fundamental part towards the UK’s 2050 Net Zero ambitions, as well as our efforts globally.

The University of Warwick is a fantastic location to continue our strong work in this field. With an excellent research environment, including access to industry-leading facilities, we are primed for the future. Indeed, my research into material discovery, green hydrogen, green ammonia and fuel cells would not be possible without this support.

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