Video: Canary talks ammonia-powered ships on The Weather Channel

Watch reporter Maria Gallucci explain why shipping giants and startups are looking to ammonia as an alternative to dirty diesel.
By Maria Gallucci

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Cargo ships are the linchpin of the modern global economy, transporting trillions of dollars’ worth of goods on container vessels alone every year. They’re also a major — and growing — source of planet-warming gases and toxic air pollutants.

On April 6, I joined The Weather Channel’s climate-focused weekday show Pattrn to discuss the shipping industry’s efforts to develop one potential solution to this challenge: ammonia-powered vessels. In an interview with meteorologists Stephanie Abrams and Lynette Charles, I explained why companies in labs and shipyards around the world are working to design engines and fuel cells that can use the carbonless compound in lieu of dirty diesel fuel.

In the U.S., a startup called Amogy is working on this issue. It’s currently retrofitting an old diesel tugboat at a New York shipyard to use its novel ammonia-to-power system. In March, the Brooklyn-based startup raised $139 million to scale its technology, which it hopes can eventually power the ocean-crossing cargo ships that are responsible for much of the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Ammonia is primarily used today to make plastics, fertilizers and chemicals. Shipping experts say it holds promise as an alternative fuel because it’s relatively energy-dense and doesn’t create carbon dioxide emissions, and the infrastructure to store and transport ammonia is already in place worldwide. By 2050, it could become the leading fuel source for the world’s largest cargo vessels.

Still, the compound isn’t without drawbacks. Nearly all of today’s supplies are produced using fossil fuels. And, as I discussed on Pattrn, burning ammonia in engines can also yield small amounts of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. The compound is also highly toxic and corrosive. Still, experts say it’s possible to manage such safety challenges and limit pollution. Efforts are already underway to produce green” ammonia using renewable energy in places like Norway and Germany.

For now, one of the biggest barriers to ammonia-powered shipping is the lack of mature technologies. That’s a problem companies like Amogy are racing to solve.


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Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.