Danish manufacturer Topsoe has signed a deal to provide 5GW of its solid-oxide electrolysers (SOEs) to First Ammonia (FA) — a New York City start-up backed by a $5.5bn hedge fund firm.

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The electrolysers will be powered by renewable energy to produce green hydrogen, which would then be combined with nitrogen from the air to produce green ammonia — a substance used today mainly in the fertilizer and chemicals industries, but which could be a future shipping fuel or utilized as a hydrogen carrier.

The first 500MW of electrolyser capacity has already been allocated to FA’s first two facilities, in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, and the US Southwest.

“These projects will be the world’s first commercial-scale green-ammonia production facilities,” according to Topsoe.

SOEs are more energy-efficient than the alkaline and PEM electrolysers that dominate the growing market, in other words they can produce more hydrogen per unit of electricity by utilising waste heat. Because the Haber-Bosch process — which FA will use to produce ammonia (by combining H2 with nitrogen from the air) — requires temperatures of 400-650C, waste heat will be readily available for the SOEs.

Under the terms of the ten-year agreement, 500MW has been officially ordered by FA, with the American company paying to reserve a further 4.5GW of manufacturing capacity, Topsoe’s chief commercial officer, Sundus Cordelia Ramli, tells Recharge.

The full 5GW of electrolysers would be able to produce five million tonnes of green ammonia per year, according to Topsoe, which represents about 2-3% of the annual global market for NH3.

Only two weeks ago, Topsoe announced that it had taken a final investment decision to build a 500MW SOE factory in central Denmark, with plans to eventually expand its annual manufacturing capacity to 5GW as the electrolyser market develops.

Recharge understands that the 500MW factory is expected to be fully commissioned by 2025, with FA planning to get its German and US green ammonia production facilities on line in 2025.

FA — an affiliate of Christofferson Robb & Company, a multinational financial firm with $5.5bn of assets under management — is also taking a novel approach to the sourcing of renewable energy, with a press release stated that the company will “operate all its plants dynamically to support existing renewable power markets”.

It adds: “By operating dynamically — producing ammonia during off-peak power demand hours — First Ammonia will be a net contributor to the economics of renewable power production, providing for the further build-out of additional renewable power wherever they build a production plant.”

FA may also use Topsoe’s ammonia production equipment at their plants, with CEO Joel Moser stating: “With their cutting edge SOE electrolysers and industry leading ammonia synthesis, we will develop facilities around the world to produce millions of tons of green ammonia from water and air.

“Ammonia saved humanity from starvation a century ago as a replacement for depleted sources of fertilisers, in large part due to Topsoe’s excellence.

“Ammonia can save humanity once again as the workhorse of the hydrogen economy, replacing petrochemicals to decarbonise agriculture, transportation and power storage and generation.”

As ammonia is easier to store and transport than liquid or compressed hydrogen and contains a lot more energy by volume — 15.6MJ per litre, compared to 9.1MJ/l for liquid H2 and 5.6MJ/l for compressed hydrogen (at 700 bar) — it is increasingly being discussed as a superior shipping fuel and method of carrying hydrogen than pure H2.

“With an existing global ammonia infrastructure, green ammonia can quickly and easily replace hydrocarbon-based fuels for a wide range of use cases, with ammonia fueled ships already on order and ammonia power stations under development,” says the press release.

Japanese power company JERA is planning to build green ammonia-fired power plants, although the idea has raised eyebrows due to the inefficiencies involved. One tonne of green ammonia requires 14.38MWh of electricity to produce, but will only return 5.16MWh when combusted. Burning NH3 also produces large quantities of nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, which will have to be captured and eliminated at additional cost.

There are also safety concerns around using highly toxic ammonia as a shipping fuel.

FA is also planning to build the world’s first combustion engine to run on 100% NH3 through its First Ammonia Motors unit.

“We need to accelerate the development and industrialisation of sustainable solutions, while also increasing energy independence,” said Topsoe CEO Roeland Baan. “With this agreement, we enable the production of millions of tons of green ammonia in support of the decarbonisation agenda.”

The Topsoe order is five times larger than the previous record holder — a 1GW deal between US manufacturer Plug Power and Swiss company H2 Energy Europe in May this year.