This post is reprinted informed discussion from readers.
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: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/05/fertilized-world/charles-text
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 (http://nh3fuelassociation.org/tag/nh3-production-renewable/). 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.
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.