Decarbonising our planet with ammonia


Green energy, yes, but on the condition that we can use it when we need it! Current research in the field is all about green energy storage and delivery. At UCLouvain, Francesco Contino is exploring the possibility of storing electricity in the form of ammonia.

To meet climate and energy challenges, we must decarbonise our energy’, says Prof. Contino of UCLouvain’s Institute of Mechanics, Materials, and Civil Engineering (IMMC). And to reach ‘zero carbon’, what could be more obvious than switching from fossil fuel to renewable energy? If the reality were so simple, we’d already be there. Indeed, energy such as solar or wind isn’t available everywhere or all the time. Fossil-based energy can be tapped at all times but emits CO2. Thus scientists today are confronted with a dual challenge: achieving carbon neutrality via green energy storage and delivery. Many are working on the subject, particularly by looking for electrochemical (e.g. batteries) or chemical (e.g., hydrogen) solutions for large-scale energy storage.

One candidate: ammonia

Prof. Contino, with the support of Prof. Hervé Jeanmart, decided to address the energy storage and transport challenge via the chemical path. Instead of focusing on hydrogen, like Prof. Joris Proost, he plans to focus on another chemical element: ammonia (NH3). This unconventional fuel is the second most produced chemical in the world. Already in use for energy storage, ammonia has yet to prove itself on a more global and commercial scale. ‘Our job will be to study under what circumstances the use of ammonia is possible on a global scale,’ Prof. Contino says. This implies a radical paradigm shift: ‘With the alternative of ammonia, we’re moving from centralised production using fossil fuels to distributed and decentralised energy production and storage.

Ammonia’s state of play

Storing energy in the form of ammonia has advantages and disadvantages. Among the former, it’s easy to produce. ‘You just need water (H2O) to capture the hydrogen molecule with an electric current and air to extract nitrogen (N), then combine the two to create ammonia,’ Prof. Contino says. ‘Air and water can be found almost everywhere!’ Furthermore, ammonia is already well known. Many previous studies will help IMMC researchers. Another strong point is that it has a high energy density compared to hydrogen. ‘It means you can store a lot more energy in a given volume. It’s ideal for its transport, for example, which is now safe and controlled.’ Finally, unlike with methane or methanol, ammonia combustion doesn’t emit CO2.

Disadvantages include a production process that is more complex to implement when intermittent and given renewable production and its hazards. Today, industrial-scale ammonia combustion hasn’t been mastered and can emit nitrogen oxide, a pollutant, into the atmosphere.

Burning ammonia – not so simple!

Other fundamental projects are currently under way to find out what chemical reactions are involved when ammonia burns. To date, knowledge of its combustion remains incomplete, but the results will significantly help Prof. Contino to work simultaneously on a big question: What needs to be implemented on a global scale to burn ammonia in the best possible circumstances, without polluting, and with the best yield? ‘We already have as a starting point for our work the thesis of Maxime Pochet, a former UCLouvain PhD student, who unlocked the secrets of ammonia combustion in an engine. We have to consider what would happen if we burned ammonia in a gas-fired power plant.

Laying a stone in the foundation of tomorrow’s energy

With this project, Prof. Contino wants to serve as an experimenter of concepts on paper which have yet to applied. ‘If the experiments are convincing, the next step will be to apply energy storage in the form of ammonia in the field. This could, for example, address the problem of accessing energy from more isolated places, such as islands. But this kind of projection will be for the 2030s and 2040s.’ So not immediately. Nevertheless, ammonia will inevitably be a component in future energy production. Through this project, UCLouvain is laying a stone in the foundation of tomorrow’s energy management.

Importance of European projects

Prof. Contino’s work is part of a programme called Horizon 2020 (H2020). It’s the largest research and innovation programme ever carried out by the European Union (EU). Participation in H2020 is open to researchers from all over Europe and beyond. Its funds total €80 billion over seven years (from 2014 to 2020). The programme’s goal is finding solutions to the major challenges society faces by elevating Europe to a world-class scientific and technological level, eliminating obstacles to innovation, and facilitating collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Véronique Dias, a doctor of chemistry specialising in combustion and a coordinator of European research projects on the energy transition, underlines the importance of these projects: ‘To advance research, it’s essential to collaborate with the best European experts. There’s a great complementarity and diversity of skills that it would be sad not to exploit.’ For the FLEXnCONFU project led by Prof. Contino, 22 participants from all over Europe have begun working hand in hand since 1 March for a period of three or four years.

Lauranne Garitte

A glance at Prof Francesco Contino's bio

Francesco Contino obtained his master’s degree in electromechanical engineering from UCLouvain in 2006. He then completed his PhD at UCLouvain between 2007 and 2011 as a researcher funded by the National Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS). In 2011-12, he obtained a postdoc position at the Université d’Orléans, where he worked on the impact of valerate esters on engine performance.

Since 2019, he has been an associate professor at UCLouvain. His research focuses on four areas: energy systems, simulations and reactive systems of computational fluid dynamics (CFD), real emissions, and robust optimisation/optimisation combined with uncertainty quantification. His goal is to understand the main factors that help us succeed in the energy transition.

A glance at Prof. Hervé Jeanmart's bio

Hervé Jeanmart obtained a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from UCLouvain in 1996, then a PhD in fluid mechanics in 2002 from the same university. After a postdoc at the University of Stuttgart (in the team of Prof. Weigand) in 2003 on the internal cooling of gas turbines, he returned to UCLouvain as an associate professor in 2004.

He is active on several subjects related to energy. With his research team, he studies the energy transition by modelling energy systems.




A galnce at Véronique Dias' bio

Véronique Dias obtained her PhD at UCLouvain in 2003, then worked as a postdoctoral researcher in the Physico-Chemistry Combustion Laboratory (Faculty of Science). In 2009, she joined the UCLouvain Institute of Mechanics, Materials and Civil Engineering (iMMC) and since 2012 has been a research associate.

Her research interests relate to the combustion and kinetics of alternative fuels through the development of kinetic models for hydrocarbons and oxygenated species. In 2016-18, she worked on a chemical-form energy storage project. Since 2018, she has been the IMMC research coordinator for European projects on energy transition

Published on April 23, 2020