Midcoast residents hoping to fuel their vehicles with ammonia might have a long wait, according to Robert West.

West is the managing director of the Ocean Energy Institute, a think tank created by Rockport resident Matthew Simmons that is renovating offices in Rockland’s Breakwater Marketplace building.

Simmons is the founder and chairman of Simmons & Company, an independent investment bank specializing in the energy industry. He is known in the Midcoast for his purchase and renovation of the Rockland Strand Theatre and has recently acquired the property at Fox Hill in Camden previously owned by former MBNA Chairman Charles Cawley.

West said Jan. 25 that the Ocean Energy Institute is involved in exploring energy resources in the Gulf of Maine and that like others, he was surprised to learn that wind had more potential than wave and tidal energy sources. He said a lot of the offshore wind resources information used by former governor and current Independence Wind principal Angus King, as he promotes the development of large-scale wind power projects in Maine and New England, came from research done by the Ocean Energy Institute.

Gov. John Baldacci’s goal for Maine to create five gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030 reflects projections made by the institute, West said. He said his company has benefited from the work done by Baldacci’s Ocean Energy Task Force and the institute is a member of the Deep Sea Wind Consortium that was selected to study the potential of offshore wind power near Monhegan Island.

The ammonia comes into play after the research is done and windmills start producing electricity for general consumption.

West said the Ocean Energy Institute is exploring a number of ways to take the salt out of ocean water to create a source for hydrogen — a key component in ammonia.

“Ammonia right now is almost 100 percent produced from coal or methane,” West said. “They get hydrogen from the carbon-based fuel and nitrogen from the air. What we’re looking at is a very new process in its very early development stage.” West said water would be combined with nitrogen and electricity to create the ammonia through a more direct process.

The ammonia could be stored in steel tanks. West said ammonia has been around since 1913 and about 120 million tons of the caustic liquid are produced annually throughout the world to be used primarily in fertilizers.

“There’s quite a system across the world for the production, transport and use of ammonia,” West said.

Once the process has been refined in a laboratory, he said, a pilot plant could be built. West said he wasn’t sure where that pilot facility would be.

“It could be anywhere, really,” West said. He said the best location would be near an industrial, shipping and fuel distribution infrastructure.

“Some people are talking about small plants on the islands to convert the electricity to ammonia,” West said. He said the liquid anhydrous ammonia, or NH3, that would be used for fuel and electricity storage is different from the product used in homes. “That has water in it already,” he said.

West described the Ocean Energy Institute’s Rockland facility as “strictly offices.”

“We’re just coming out public in a larger way and looking at supporting ongoing research throughout the country,” West said. He did not say where the current research lab is located. For now, he said, he and some part-time consultants are working at the Rockland location.

“We’re supporting and funding development efforts — the next stage of testing — taking the processes from very small-scale laboratory operations to learn how to make this on a larger scale,” he said.

“This is a very early process,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do.” He said there are many questions and concerns and the institute will work closely with communities and all those involved to do the work in a responsible manner.

“The cost has to be as minimal of an impact for everyone involved to make it worthwhile,” he said.

West said research is at its beginning stages and he might be retired before ammonia becomes a commonly used motor fuel. He said early applications would probably be for use in fleets where there is a centralized distribution point.

“We’re not talking of replacing gas and diesel 100 percent, but if gas is way up [in price] and alternative energy is working, there could be an opportunity to transition to ammonia,” he said. “Look how long it took for hybrids to get penetration in the market.”

West said a grand opening for the Ocean Energy Institute’s Rockland office will probably be held the end of March.

To learn more about anhydrous ammonia as a fuel, visit the Ammonia Fuel Network Web site at ammoniafuelnetwork.org.


filed under: