Cracking imported blue ammonia back into hydrogen is expensive and inefficient and should be avoided, NGO Clean Air Task Force (CATF) has warned in a new study — in which it shows that the energy-intensive process pushes up the cost of hydrogen by 40-50%.

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In fact, using uncracked ammonia is in the vast majority of cases the cheapest way of importing blue hydrogen into Europe, and the bloc should be investigating which part of the bloc’s expected demand for blue hydrogen can be met this way.

“Import pathways that rely on the long-range transport of liquefied pure hydrogen or on a liquid organic hydrogen carrier that requires dehydrogenation to liberate pure hydrogen at the point of import should be avoided as they do not make sense from an energy, emissions, or economic standpoint,” said the report, Techno-economic realities of long-distance hydrogen transport, which focused on blue hydrogen imports into Rotterdam from a variety of global locations.

Analysis carried out by Hydrogen Insight using CATF’s figures suggests that the dehydrogenation process — in which the hydrogen molecule is “liberated” from NH3 — adds between 40-50% to the equivalent levelised cost of H2.

For example blue hydrogen imported to Rotterdam from the Arabian Gulf as blue ammonia would cost $1.8/kg if left uncracked, but $2.7/kg — 50% more — when cracked back into hydrogen.

CATF emphasised that its figures illustrate the equivalent cost of H2 only — not the actual cost of ammonia.

Europe should capitalise on these findings by prioritising the decarbonisation of existing ammonia demand in areas such as fertiliser production, CATF said, adding that the bloc could also consider spurring development of related technologies and infrastructure in applications “where no more efficient or cost-effective decarbonisation option exists”.

This could include “the decarbonisation of the maritime sector, where ammonia could replace current high-polluting bunkering fuel,” the report’s co-author Magnolia Tovar told Hydrogen Insight.

Although the study focuses on imports of blue hydrogen only, it could serve as a wake-up call to green hydrogen importers such as Air Products, which is planning to offtake all the volumes from the giant NEOM renewable ammonia plant in Saudi Arabia, for delivery — most likely as hydrogen — into the north European mobility market.

Significantly, the only area where uncracked blue ammonia imports were more expensive than another blue hydrogen import pathway was the case in H2 delivered from Norway, where pipeline imports of gaseous blue hydrogen produced a slightly lower levelised cost of delivered H2 than uncracked ammonia.

However, at $2.6/kg this is still significantly higher than cost of uncracked ammonia from the Arabian Gulf, which is around $1.8/kg.

In all other cases, uncracked ammonia produced the lowest levelised cost, followed by pipeline imports from Algeria and Norway, followed by cracked ammonia. Imports of liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid organic hydrogen carriers (LOHC) would be prohibitively expensive in all cases, CATF found.

In fact, compared to uncracked ammonia, liquid hydrogen and LOHC imports were sometimes double the cost, CATF found.

"Policymakers should highly consider not cracking ammonia if the end user can use ammonia directly," a spokesperson for CATF told Hydrogen Insight. "This is because importing uncracked ammonia is much cheaper than importing H2 through LOHC or LH2 pathways just to turn it into NH3."

"The levelised cost of hydrogen of importing uncracked ammonia is even cheaper than pipeline in some scenarios," he added. "This might be redundant to highlight for existing ammonia applications like ammonia-based fertiliser production. But this bears highlighting for end uses like marine transportation where ammonia and H2 can both be used as a bunkering fuel."

He concluded: "LOHC and LH2 pathways are just really inefficient in these import scenarios. While we don't want to rule out these import pathways entirely, policymakers should carefully examine any funding deployed for these import pathways and should likely reserve them for only niche scenarios."