China’s GAC Debuts Ammonia-Powered Car Engine
With the automotive industry now keen on propulsion systems that don’t emit a lot of carbon, we’ve seen decades of manufacturers toying with alternative fuels. Corn-based ethanol was big for a while and the Germans have recently shown a renewed interest in carbon monoxide and hydrogen-based synthetic fuel stemming from the gasification of coal, biomass, and/or methane.
Meanwhile, China’s state-owned Guangzhou Automobile Group Company (GAC) has announced it had developed an engine powered by ammonia with help from Toyota Motor Corporation during its annual technology showcase.
While Bloomberg reported it as the “world’s first car engine that runs on ammonia,” other companies have been developing engines that run on the inorganic compound for years. MAN Energy Solutions has been working on a two-stroke motor it expects to be commercially available for maritime applications by 2024.
Amogy, a startup founded by four MIT graduates, even revealed an ammonia-electric semi truck at the start of 2023 and had previously modified a John Deere tractor to run on the fuel. Going back in time a bit, we can see that the Caterpillar Corporation filed a 2008 patent application that covers a “power system having an ammonia-fueled engine.”
What’s different about the GAC-Toyota joint is that the duo has allegedly overcome some of the issues associated with burning it. Ammonia is pretty toxic and was often faulted as having the potential to emit even more greenhouse gasses than conventional fuels. Production methods are relatively energy intensive. But companies are trying to swap to “green” variants that utilize renewable energy — though these only represent a fraction of the whole at present.
“We’ve overcome the pain point of ammonia being difficult to burn quickly and put the fuel to use in the passenger car industry,” Qi Hongzhong from GAC’s research and development center told reporters. “Its value to society and for commercial uses are worth anticipating.”
Ammonia is being explored as a carbon-free fuel but it faces hurdles because of its low flammability and high nitrogen oxide emissions. GAC said it has developed a 2.0-liter engine that can burn liquid ammonia more efficiently in a safe manner, achieving 120 kilowatts of power and a 90 [percent] reduction in carbon emissions compared to conventional fuels, according to Qi.
State-owned GAC is leading Chinese legacy automakers in the transition to green energy. Its EV brand Aion became the third best selling clean-car brand in the country, behind BYD Co. and Tesla Inc., after overtaking General Motors Co.’s joint venture with SAIC Motor Corp. and Wuling Motors Holdings. The Guangzhou-based company has been investing in research and development, and incubated the battery making unicorn Greater Bay Technology, which is working on EV cells that can charge in 15 minutes and in all weather conditions.
Technological advancements aside, not everyone seems convinced that ammonia is going to be the new hotness. The industry would need to embrace the concept fairly broadly and be willing to spend more money to chase development. That’s a tall order when so much money is already tied up in battery-electric vehicles.
We’ve seen hydrogen power fizzle out somewhat in recent years for similar reasons. Despite impressive leaps in technology over the last two decades, interest is limited to Japan and a smattering of other regions that already have enough hydrogen fueling stations to rationalize using it as a way to power automobiles. It’s relatively energy intensive to produce and brutally difficult to store. Ammonia would likewise need to see specialized fueling stations crop up all around the planet before it becomes viable and there are lingering questions on just how ready GAC’s motor actually is for mass production.
“Ammonia is hellish to handle,” said Colin McKerracher, head of transport and automotive analysis at BloombergNEF. “I can’t see it taking off in passenger cars.”
[Image: GAC Motor]
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