Ammonia CO2-free fuel: safety concerns discussion

This post is reprinted  informed discussion from readers.

  1. a comment from a 1043mabovethesea reader:

    NH3 (Ammonia)

    NH3 (Ammonia) (Photo credit: Orbital Joe)

    I think your point about thinking about our responsibility to reduce pollution, is a very good one, especially when it comes to delving deeper into what appear to be ‘magical solutions’ like ammonia for fueling cars. What the nhc3 car web site (where your article is sourced from) doesn’t tell us, is that ammonia is highly toxic and deadly, even in very dilute concentrations, to aquatic animals. For sufficient ammonia to be made in order to fuel the insatiable energy appetite of the worlds automobile fleet, production from current levels would have to be massively ramped up, and this large volume of ammonia, just like oil, would need to be transported around the globe, frequently in ships.

    If we think that an oil spill is harmful to the environment, it would be nothing in comparison to the devastation an ammonia spill would have.
    Also, outside of the enormous chewing up of resources required to ramp up ammonia production, each and every 4 stroke vehicle would require engine modifications, including new pistons, to lower compression ratios, enabling them to run on ammonia, or, all of the current worldwide fleet of cars retired, and new cars with new engines made that could run on ammonia. The resource intensive process of either of these options is crazy.

    English: Small gas cylinder with pure ammonia ...

    gas cylinder with pure ammonia Polski: Mała butla z czystym amoniakiem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Cars are an unsustainable, total environmental disaster, not only because when it comes to how they are fueled, there is no ‘silver bullet’, but also because of the large numbers of animals that are directly killed by them on roads, and indirectly killed from the environmental toxicity of plastic, rubber, glass and aluminium production.
    It is very obvious to me that human beings, even those who profess to care about the environment, are stubbornly going to hang onto their love affair with their cars, no matter what…….

TrevorBrown on June 22, 2013 at 6:33 pm said:Check out for more detail on ammonia fuel – in car engines, vehicle conversions, safety.

Re: toxicity to aquatic life. Yes, ammonia isn’t a good thing to put into your rivers. I’d suggest the main problem here is fertilizer run off. In the US, we inject more than 10 million tons of pure ammonia into our soil every year, to boost crop production. If you count the other nitrogen fertilizers (made from ammonia) like urea, ammonium nitrate, UAN, etc, the amount of nitrogen is way more.

If you apply the fertilizer at the wrong moment, or use too much of it, or rain falls unexpectedly, the nitrogen leaches into the water supply. Check out the National Geographic article about farmers using more nitrogen than they need, and the damage it causes:

Ammonia fuel reverses this problem: you aren’t pouring it onto the land, you’re burning it in an engine, and what comes out of your tailpipe is inert nitrogen (N2 – 78% of the air) and pure water vapor.

If we’re talking about leaks from ammonia production plants or pipelines, yeah, that could be an issue, but this is already very highly regulated, in every country in the world. Don’t forget – ammonia is a known quantity. We make and use about 200 million tons of it every year, everywhere. 25 million tons are shipped internationally every year.

There are accidents, of course, but because ammonia is so obviously and immediately dangerous to people, it’s got a much better spillage record than other things – like oil, or natural gas. How many leaking oil pipelines are there today? Plenty, everywhere. How many leaking ammonia pipelines are there today? Next to none. If there were, everyone near them would be in hospital. You could say, it’s so dangerous, it’s safe. Handle with respect.

Re: ramping up production. Look into alternate ammonia production: from biomass, from wind, from any power source ( If you de-link ammonia production from areas where Natural Gas and Coal are cheap (traditional producers use fossil fuels to make hydrogen, which is the feedstock for making ammonia), you have a situation where you’re doing distributed production.

Why ship it across the ocean if you can make it locally? It’s a completely different scenario from oil – only available in certain places. Any country with sunlight, wind, or waves can make ammonia for themselves. Or, at least, will in a few years when the new slate of technologies come online.

Last point about aquatic safety: ammonia is toxic to sea life because it suffocates them (hypoxia). That’s not good. On the other hand, unless there’s an ongoing leak that isn’t addressed, it’s a short term problem. Bacteria will break down the ammonia, oxygen will get back into the system, life will return to the area. A sickly fish can get better: it processes synthetic ammonia the same way it processes the organic ammonia it produces every day: it pees.

There’s no contamination up the food chain. Compare that situation to oil spills, or contamination of aquifers from fracking – toxic, carcinogenic chemicals that stay in the system for ever, and become more concentrated the further up the food chain we go.

Ball-and-stick model of the ammonia molecule, ...

Ball-and-stick model of the ammonia molecule, NH 3 . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Finally – what would it take to retire the entire world’s fleet of oil-burning cars? About 15 years. No effort required. It’s called buying a new car, and people do it in every economy around the world. Make a good product, and allow people to use a fuel that’s clean, efficient, locally produced, and cheaper than oil … the problem could take care of itself. It won’t happen quickly, but it can happen.

Great to get comments on this blog!, I may paste them in to a new post to illustrate the safety debate and try and share with somewhere more widely read.
Kade, did you look at the NH3 Fuel risk analysis report carried out by Quest Consultant  see Here       and   2/03/NH3_RiskAnalysis_final.pdf ..seemed convincing to me.


1-Ammonia_compressor (Photo credit: Shining Fish Tech)

You’re right of course that NH3 is no silver bullet, I think what we’re probably talking about is ways to mitigate already inevitable ecocide and the destruction of the biosphere, playing for time for our kids.Tell me I’m wrong please!
I did recognise the aquatic danger in a few posts, I look after a natural pond myself, and reached the same conclusion that spills are ‘manageable’ already in the fertiliser industry and burning it is relatively safe compared to spreading it on the land.

All the best… mike

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Ammonia as a refrigerant

Another great use for ammonia, in this case its not burned so leaks and smell are an issue, though as the post points out quantities are tiny compared with ammonia in fertilizer.


Prior to 1850, a brilliant Australian Engineer, James Harrison invented the vapour compression refrigeration system by “closing the loop”. He was aware that when ether evaporated it made printing type set cold when used for cleaning. His invention collected the evaporated gas, compressed it, condensed it and fed it back as a liquid to be re-evaporated, thereby forming a closed loop. Refrigeration was born. By 1855, Harrison was manufacturing  ice machines operating on ether in the closed refrigeration circuit, while the rest of the world were still cutting ice blocks from frozen rivers and lakes. In 1856, Harrison was awarded patent No. 747 for his invention.

In the 1860’s, ammonia started to be used in refrigeration as it was seen as a much safer alternative than ether.  Ammonia quickly gained popularity and by 1900 it dominated the world of refrigeration as the refrigerant of choice. The ammonia domination remained through…

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