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UAE’s ‘low carbon’ blue ammonia debunked by experts

Hydrogen is heralded by many as the key to decarbonising energy, but the UAE’s ‘low carbon’ way of transporting it through blue ammonia is drawing scepticism from experts.

When the president of the world’s leading climate conference is simultaneously the chief of a top 10 oil production empire, it’s understandable that experts would want his grandiose ecological claims to be substantiated with science.

In recent years, Sultan Al Jaber has touted ‘blue ammonia’ as the means of finally unlocking the vast potential of hydrogen – which, if correctly harnessed, could reportedly decarbonise our most pollutant industries for good.

Ammonia is a man-made carrier of hydrogen, created when the gas and nitrogen react, and is the current method of choice for transporting and storing the majority of hydrogen we make.

The main problem, however, is that creating ammonia is an energy-intensive process in itself, accounting for 3% of global carbon emissions.

Sultan Al Jaber claims that blue ammonia is a ‘low carbon’ alternative which will underpin the hydrogen economy in the imminent future, making it affordable and feasible to implement.

While green ammonia is the only truly sustainable form of the gas, created using expensive renewable energy, blue ammonia involves employing carbon capture to manually remove CO2 from the regular ammonia-making process.

‘When I first started hearing about blue hydrogen, let alone blue ammonia, it seemed like a scam, quite frankly,’ revealed Rober Howarth, a professor of Ecology at Cornell. After delving further into the subject, he concluded: ‘In some ways, it is.’

Contrary to the picture being painted by UAE figureheads, a closer look at the ecological footprint of blue ammonia (beyond CO2) reveals that its production often emits three times the emission toll of diesel, and two-and-a-half times more than coal or natural gas.

This is primarily due to methane leakage during the production of ammonia and is compounded by inefficiencies in converting hydrogen into ammonia and back. Beyond this, UAE oil giant ADNOC openly uses its sequestered CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR).

As we discussed just last week, this involves injecting oil wells with CO2 to thin the supply’s viscosity and ultimately pump more oil. While preferable to drilling somewhere else entirely, this process is still anything but green.

Technically, Sultan Al Jaber is within his rights to call blue ammonia a ‘low carbon’ product, but the caveat is huge. Methane is responsible for one-third of global warming that has occurred since 1900, and though rarely mentioned in climate assessments, it continues to play a pivotal role.

Despite being preferable to regular ammonia production in terms of CO2, Howarth is concerned that blue ammonia represents a ‘very dangerous approach’ to decarbonisation governance.

Nonetheless, we fully expect the hosts of COP28 to peddle the ‘solution’ relentlessly over the coming days and weeks. Sigh.