AdBlue - a coming crisis?

There's an interesting development happening around the world right now with an incoming shortage of AdBlue, which is a fuel exhaust system additive used by diesel powered vehicles and machinery from roughly 2015 and onwards that meet European emission standards by breaking down Nitrogen Oxide emissions in the exhaust system.  Without AdBlue, the vehicles don't operate according to one source or might operate, via a technical override and broken emission laws, according to another source - so it might as well be a diesel shortage.  Interestingly, despite the abundance of natural gas in Australia, there is a urea CO(NH2)2 (produced from ammonia NH3) shortage. The urea + deionised water is used to produce generic AdBlue, which is needed by roughly 50% of Australian trucks and by many tractors, combine harvesters and other machinery on Australian farms. Some tradies could be affected too.  Who knows how other diesel powered transport could be affected? Hyzon Motors have made a start (https://hyzonmotors.com/) for (?Green) Hydrogen powered trucks. H2X is looking at (?Green) Hydrogen powered machinery which could include agricultural machinery in the future. There's also the 'new material' (see previous blog) possibility for integrated solar/massless battery EVs.

 

So, I did some digging and it turns out we were importing 80% of our urea from China (but can't seem to find a primary source anywhere), which has temporarily stopped exporting it now due to rising worldwide N fertiliser costs (natural gas cost increases, coal shortages to run fertiliser plants leading to shutdowns, Covid-19 supply chain issues etc.) and the need to guarantee affordable supply to farmers within China.  Russia, also a major ammonia and urea exporter has done the same thing. According to a World Bank Group blog (see REFERENCES), the cost of urea is rising exponentially in 2021. Consequently, the price of AdBlue has skyrocketed and some industry experts are saying we could run out of AdBlue by February 2022 or even earlier. 

 

Maybe in the short-term the Government could procure AdBlue from other countries eg.Indonesia (at an inflated rate as they are one of the world's largest importers of fertilizer, mainly from China, Russia and Canada) but over the mid to long term this approach would help leave those countries high and dry without it and create an artificial or 'synthetic' sense of security in Australia. Maybe Canada could help? We should start producing green urea ASAP, which could take a while to build the infrastructure (see 'The HR seedball machine' later in the blog), if we are going to survive the potential shock in the medium to long term. Incitec Pivot Limited, with 'Twiggy's 'Green Ammonia' retrofit on the East coast and Yaru Pilbara (bound to Chinese export contracts...but maybe could be renegotiated since they stopped exporting to us) on the West coast could buffer us with AdBlue supply.

 

Strike Energy in Geraldton, WA is trying to get approval to manufacture 3/4 of Australia's ammonia needs for the near future but they rely on fracking to get the non-renewable gas which is a dirty process - toxic fracking fluid gets in the groundwater supply and it is a Carbon intensive operation. There are probably Traditional Owner issues too. That's not even taking into account the CO2 released into the atmosphere from the energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process (1909) using air-captured Nitrogen (N2) and natural gas for Hydrogen extraction (from methane CH4) to produce the ammonia (N2 + 3H2 -> 2NH3). Strike Energy claims they can reuse waste CO2 from the ammonia production to produce the urea. They have greenwashed themselves saying they will be Carbon neutral by 2030.

 

Expansion of natural gas infrastructure to drive down the cost of N fertiliser (and AdBlue) isn't the answer. A maintenance and expansion of 'Green Revolution' agriculture (which began in the 1950s) 'to feed the world' isn't the answer either. This is Fritjof Capra's (and John Newcombe's) 'Turning point' in my opinion. 'The Turning Point' book, by Capra, was written in 1982. His main message, I understand, was 'No ecology no economy' but it's open to interpretation. So, we've had almost 40 years to think about it - and a growing body of recorded Indigenous knowledge around the world though it's only a fraction of what people knew or still know about living sustainably within the limits of ecosystems. The 'Green Revolution' has been destroying ecosystems all around the world (often with Government support) and how many Oz farmers are in debt as the scale of farms perpetually increase as are many inputs, often with more needed each year in order to get a reasonable yield? How many Indian farmers have suicided because they couldn't pay the bills, ironically often drinking Monsanto pesticides? That's what I call a 'slow' emergency but many farmers would probably disagree as it's happening right now!  The 'Green Revolution' has failed. It's hard to imagine many Ozzie broadacre farmers would change their systems but there are some modifications that could be made that may hopefully interest some of them...

 

For eg., I looked into a greener chemistry for producing ammonia and it turns out that Jupiter Ionics, a spin-off company from Monash Uni have developed a fossil free process to produce ammonia from Nitrogen air capture (N2), water electrolysis (H2) and renewable energy plus a regenerative catalyst -> Ammonia (NH3). I asked them if they also had a green process to convert ammonia to urea but they haven't replied. Maybe there are alternatives to using CO2? Or, maybe CO2 from direct air capture (DAC) could be used (some tech just pumps it into underground aquifers/wells for no economic use - maybe make some Vodka as a bit of side hustle too?)? Maybe a machine could be built to collect H2O (water vapor), N2 and CO2 via DAC in a 3 step process that could be used just about anywhere? The technology exists for capturing each molecule independently - just need to integrate the technologies. That would cover all feedstocks for urea production. So, potentially future ammonia production and conversion to urea may have zero C emissions and negate the need for fossil fuel inputs as a feedstock source and energy supply. Maybe in the future, a renewable energy powered and mostly open source machine (possibly powered from pyrolysis eg.ECHO2 with integrated battery eg.CO2, Iron redox flow, saltwater etc.) could integrate DAC of feedstocks, ammonia production (using the Jupiter Ionics process), conversion of ammonia to urea (for AdBlue, as a value added product) and more importantly, combine the (liquid) urea with milled biochar (fed in from ECHO2 and mill) for slow-release and 'Carbon negative' fertiliser granules/pellets/'Fertiliser balls' (reducing agricultural fertiliser inputs; reducing NOx, N2O emissions over time, 'removing' C from the atmosphere and building soil C) + all the other benefits of biochar in soil eg. once the ammonia is mineralised by urease found in the soil to ammonium NH4+, bacteria via doping of the 3D biochar matrix could break down the NH4+ into nitrates NO3- for plant bioavailability.

 

Alternatively, seeds could be added to the 'Fertiliser balls' to make 'Seedballs' (see REFERENCES). There's a biochar 'intersection' for broadacre farming (which could become no-till and 'regenerative', which is happening all around the world, with the bonus of C removal credits issued on some C removal marketplaces), regenerative agroforestry and bushland regeneration. For eg., regen agroforestry could be integrated with bushland regeneration (after the climate-caused bushfires). Biochar/charcoal could be collected from the bush or made with a kiln eg.Kon-Tiki 'Rolls' to produce biochar-containing seedballs to grow the economic species needed eg. native bush foods and medicines or permaculture plants (as long as they're not 'weeds' for a given ecosystem)...It can be done on small-scale eg. Kenyan approach, or on larger-scales with drones eg.Airseed Technologies. More research needed...

 

It's a question now as to how fast the technology can be scaled up for AdBlue and fertiliser production and whether the Government is serious about the emergency who were initially just 'aware' of and 'monitoring' it but now there is action. While our Deputy PM and Minister for Transport (Barnaby!) is locked in quarantine with Covid-19 in the US, the Minister for Industry, Energy and ?Emissions reduction Angus Taylor has picked up the ball with an 'emergency taskforce' and will hopefully run with a sense of urgency as we are approaching the Summer holiday season - or we could be looking at empty supermarket shelves or at least hyperinflated food prices in the near future...There could be some weird and wonderful dishes on the menu in the next 6 months or so - just like the old days.  It's a good time to be thinking about growing your own food (eg.help crack the code of Regenerative Agroforestry) to supplement your diet and wallet!

 

However it plays out, in my opinion, the AdBlue shortage (a sprint) is a symptom of an ageing and unsustainable fossil economy which is a challenge for most of the planet - not just for Australia. The AdBlue crisis/emergency is nested within a 'food system emergency' nested within a global 'climate emergency'.  The logistics of world trade has a massive C footprint though there are increasingly more clever and sustainable transport energy sources at all scales and application eg.Green ammonia, Green Hydrogen etc. Small-scale food and medicine production/buffers/'Shields' eg.community gardens, 'Victory gardens', aquaponics etc. probably need to be everywhere in order to hedge our bets, diversify and word up & skill up the people. The list goes on and even if the Government plans ahead for future economic shocks like AdBlue, what matters is how we tackle the underlying sustainability problem (a marathon) - largely with greentech, reduce our impact on the climate and wherever it's possible to 'Go Greener' and build more resilience into our systems.

But - you can't plan for every economic contingency.

It's called 'The HR seedball machine' with respect to British cartoonist, illustrator and artist Heath Robinson (a household name) and his 'contraptions' and a seemingly absurdly complex way to produce seedballs. But, it could do a lot more than just seedballs.  This design is for small-scale seedball production with biochar, vodka and AdBlue value adds however it could be scaled up to a larger plant. In which case, there are additional value adds eg. CO2->rocket fuel, aviation fuel, bricks, starch et al eg2. Hydrogen->Hydrogen powered vehicles eg3. Ammonia->Ammonia powered vehicles eg3.biochar->many applications etc etc  Anyone interested in collaborating on the design? Ideally, the whole thing would be open source however the reality is some of the processes and technologies have been patented or are patent pending. It integrates many ideas, some new, some prototyped, and some old, so I suppose some designers might collaborate and others wouldn't. Certainly an improvement over natural gas and brown coal gasification feedstocks...we're probably not going to run out of air anytime soon (touch wood).

REFERENCES

  • AdBlue crisis: https://www.news.com.au/finance/economy/australian-economy/pressure-mounts-over-adblue-diesel-exhaust-fluid-shortage/news-story/cf87a7605ce8723f04a50c58e454a938?amp
  • Cost of urea off the chart: https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/soaring-fertilizer-prices-add-inflationary-pressures-and-food-security-concerns
  • Net fertilizer importers: https://indonesien.ahk.de/id/infocenter/translate-to-bahasa-indonesia-demand-for-fertilizers-and-factories-is-increasing
  • A greentech battery with many advantages: https://energydome.com/co2-battery/
  • Green ammonia process: https://www.jupiterionics.com/
  • An Oz BECCS tech: https://www.rainbowbeeeater.com.au/what-we-do
  • Side hustle from the DAC machine: https://aircompany.com/collections/all
  • Awesome but not yet commercialised: https://hydrogen-central.com/belgian-researchers-solar-panel-produces-hydrogen/
  • Seedballs: https://www.seedballskenya.com/
  • Seedballs - another approach: https://airseedtech.com/
  • Regen agroforestry software: https://regenfarmer.com/
  • Oz economic interdependencies: https://oec.world/en/profile/country/aus
32 Urea Fact Sheet.pdf
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