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Ammonia made from sun, air, and water could turn Australia into a renewable energy superpower.

The ancient, arid landscapes of Australia are fertile ground for new growth, says Douglas MacFarlane, a chemist at Monash University in suburban Melbourne:

The ancient, arid landscapes of Australia are fertile ground for new growth, says Douglas MacFarlane, a chemist at Monash University in suburban Melbourne: vast forests of windmills and solar panels. More sunlight per square meter strikes the country than just about any other, and powerful winds buffet its south and west coasts.

All told, Australia boasts a renewable energy potential of 25,000 gigawatts, one of the highest in the world and about four times the planet's installed electricity production capacity. Yet with a small population and few ways to store or export the energy, its renewable bounty is largely untapped.

That's where MacFarlane comes in. For the past 4 years, he has been working on a fuel cell that can convert renewable electricity into a carbon-free fuel: ammonia. Fuel cells typically use the energy stored in chemical bonds to make electricity; MacFarlane's operates in reverse. In his third-floor laboratory, he shows off one of the devices, about the size of a hockey puck and clad in stainless steel. Two plastic tubes on its backside feed it nitrogen gas and water, and a power cord supplies electricity. Through a third tube on its front, it silently exhales gaseous ammonia, all without the heat, pressure, and carbon emissions normally needed to make the chemical. “This is breathing nitrogen in and breathing ammonia out,” MacFarlane says, beaming like a proud father.

Companies around the world already produce $60 billion worth of ammonia every year, primarily as fertilizer, and MacFarlane's gizmo may allow them to make it more efficiently and cleanly. But he has ambitions to do much more than help farmers. By converting renewable electricity into an energy-rich gas that can easily be cooled and squeezed into a liquid fuel, MacFarlane's fuel cell effectively bottles sunshine and wind, turning them into a commodity that can be shipped anywhere in the world and converted back into electricity or hydrogen gas to power fuel cell vehicles. The gas bubbling out of the fuel cell is colorless, but environmentally, MacFarlane says, ammonia is as green as can be. “Liquid ammonia is liquid energy,” he says. “It's the sustainable technology we need.”

Ammonia—one nitrogen atom bonded to three hydrogen atoms—may not seem like an ideal fuel: The chemical, used in household cleaners, smells foul and is toxic. But its energy density by volume is nearly double that of liquid hydrogen—its primary competitor as a green alternative fuel—and it is easier to ship and distribute. “You can store it, ship it, burn it, and convert it back into hydrogen and nitrogen,” says Tim Hughes, an energy storage researcher with manufacturing giant Siemens in Oxford, U.K. “In many ways, it's ideal.”

Researchers around the globe are chasing the same vision of an “ammonia economy,” and Australia is positioning itself to lead it. “It's just beginning,” says Alan Finkel, Australia's chief scientist who is based in Canberra. Federal politicians have yet to offer any major legislation in support of renewable ammonia, Finkel says, perhaps understandable in a country long wedded to exporting coal and natural gas. But last year, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency declared that creating an export economy for renewables is one of its priorities. This year, the agency announced AU$20 million in initial funds to support renewable export technologies, including shipping ammonia.

In Australia's states, politicians see renewable ammonia as a potential source of local jobs and tax revenues, says Brett Cooper, chairman of Renewable Hydrogen, a renewable fuels consulting firm in Sydney. In Queensland, officials are discussing creating an ammonia export terminal in the port city of Gladstone, already a hub for shipping liquefied natural gas to Asia. In February, the state of South Australia awarded AU$12 million in grants and loans to a renewable ammonia project. And last year, an international consortium announced plans to build a US$10 billion combined wind and solar plant known as the Asian Renewable Energy Hub in Western Australia state. Although most of the project's 9000 megawatts of electricity would flow through an undersea cable to power millions of homes in Indonesia, some of that power could be used to generate ammonia for long-distance export. “Ammonia is the key enabler for exporting renewables,” says David Harris, research director for low-emissions technologies at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Energy in Pullenvale. “It's the bridge to a whole new world.”

First, however, the evangelists for renewable ammonia will have to displace one of the modern world's biggest, dirtiest, and most time-honored industrial processes: something called Haber-Bosch

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