Toyota and GAC's Groundbreaking Ammonia Engine Is Not an EV Killer

GAC ammonia engine 16 photos
Photo: GAC, edited by autoevolution
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In a time when the global automotive industry is actively transitioning from internal combustion engines toward cleaner alternatives like EVs and, to a lesser extent, FCVs (Fuel Cell Vehicles), the state-owned Guangzhou Automobile Group (GAC) from China is taking a distinct approach.
At its annual technology showcase earlier this summer, the long-standing Chinese partner of Toyota unveiled an innovative internal combustion engine powered by ammonia, of all things.

For those not in the know, which is probably most people, ammonia has been previously harnessed as a combustible fuel, particularly in the shipping and trucking sectors.

That said, GAC's pioneering use of this as a fuel in automotive applications managed to raise some eyebrows. At first glance, this signifies a unique attempt to explore alternative propulsion technologies beyond the conventional ICE systems without switching completely to BEVs (Battery Electric Vehicles), something that GAC is also known for.

In other words, it's trying to do precisely what hydrogen and CO2-neutral gasoline proponents are trying, but is an ammonia engine really an alternative?

According to the press release, GAC's prototype ammonia engine is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 161 HP (163 PS) that doesn't seem to use any forced induction. Obviously, the high(ish) output per liter isn't the biggest story with this powerplant, but its 90 percent carbon emissions reduction rate compared to a fossil-fueled engine with similar capacity and power.

GAC hasn't mentioned anything about fuel economy, but we can assume it's nothing horrendously bad or particularly good.

Either way, that is beside the point because we're here to talk about ammonia and how it could potentially become a death stroke for the proliferation of EVs, or can it?

What on Earth Is Ammonia?

Ammonia is a highly versatile chemical compound comprising nitrogen and hydrogen (NH3) and is renowned for its widespread applications. While primarily used as a fertilizer in agriculture, with over two-thirds of the world's annual production of ammonia being used for fertilizing crops, the substance's significance extends into a multitude of areas.

Ammonia doesn't grow on trees, nor can it be pumped from the ground; it is a foundational chemical synthesis element and a key molecule in numerous processes across different industries. People much smarter than me say that ammonia is an intermediary in synthesizing sodium bicarbonate, nylon, synthetic fibers, plastics, polymers, and even explosives.

It also finds its place as an ingredient in products like paints, hair dyes, and household cleaners. Beyond this, ammonia serves as a refrigerant, a solvent, and a whitening agent in paper manufacturing. Its contributions extend into rubber manufacturing as a stabilizer and metallurgy as a valuable reducing agent.

Moreover, the substance acts as a reagent for controlling nitrogen oxides (NOx) in aqueous solutions, particularly in the exhaust systems of diesel engines. Due to its extensive utility, ammonia ranks among the most produced and utilized high-volume chemicals globally.

Now, with great power comes great responsibility, as Uncle Ben used to tell Spider-Man, and ammonia, in general, needs a lot of responsibility in its handling.

The Pros and Cons of Using Ammonia as Fuel

Ammonia holds the promise of being a zero-emission fuel due to its almost total lack of CO2 emissions during combustion. Nevertheless, engines currently running on ammonia do produce exhaust gases, and these include unburned ammonia, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and nitrous oxide (N2O), neither of which is particularly good for your health. Quite the contrary.

Since the substance has no carbon atoms, CO2 production levels from burning ammonia are negligible. That's great and all, but then you need to start thinking about the energy and equipment required to transform it into fuel for a combustion engine, and that's when all those pesky variables begin to pop their ugly heads.

There are a few ways, some less viable than others, to make ammonia the new gasoline, and none of them seem to offer the true benefits expected from an alternative fuel.

First of all, not unlike Porsche's synthetic e-fuel project, ammonia requires an insane amount of energy to be converted into a fuel that can be used in cars. You can minimize the energy requirements by using part of the ammonia created to synthesize hydrogen since the substance is three parts hydrogen anyway. Then, you can use said hydrogen to create a fuel cell that produces electricity. But, then again, that would be like scratching a wooden leg, a suit of problems you don't need.

It's also similar to the way Porsche is creating synthetic gasoline. They capture carbon dioxide directly from the air and combine it with hydrogen to synthesize methanol. The resulting methanol is then used in a methanol-to-gasoline (MTG) process, resulting in a fuel that acts the same way as modern gasoline.

A more viable way to transform ammonia into a usable automotive fuel would be to create a so-called cocktail of various ingredients, including diesel, gasoline, or even hydrogen, to make a liquid fuel that can be used in internal combustion engines like any other fuel type.

Apparently, GAC's prototype engine, developed in partnership with Toyota, can be powered by liquidized ammonia (NH3) together with... something else. This used to be a technology used only on ships or farming equipment, so let's see why it's a bad idea for cars.

The Ugly Truth

Toyota has garnered attention over the years for its innovative alternative energy approaches and ambitious fueling objectives, especially compared to its somewhat slow jump on the EV bandwagon.

In other words, it's no surprise that GAC's prototype engine is said to have been developed with some of Toyota's know-how in searching for BEV alternatives. Unfortunately, there are so many red flags and negative variables surrounding liquid ammonia that even Porsche's e-fuels, which currently cost around $45 a gallon (or 10 euros per liter), make more sense financially.

Firstly, liquid ammonia is highly toxic and extremely corrosive, and on top of it, after combustion, it releases a lot of nitrogen into the atmosphere. These three reasons alone would make it non-viable as an e-fuel replacement or an EV-killer. Still, GAC and Toyota firmly believe they have solved the nitrogen-emitting part by making the prototype engine with a very high compression ratio, among other things.

Secondly, the two remaining downsides are pretty much unsolvable, at least in a viable way. Can you even imagine the horror of dealing with the fuel system maintenance of an ammonia-running engine? What if that high compression isn't maintained because of some unforeseen problems with the rest of the car?

It would just pollute a thousand times more than any gas-guzzling vehicle. And by pollution, I mean more nitrogen in the atmosphere, which usually results in more ozone, respiratory illnesses, acid rain, the works.

The corrosive nature of the substance also makes it tricky to handle before it even gets in your fuel tank (and after). In the minds of many, an ammonia engine is another cure that somehow seems worse than the purported disease it is trying to cure. We're probably better off with dealing with the infrastructure needed for charging all the million of BEVs that are coming.
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About the author: Alex Oagana
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Alex handled his first real steering wheel at the age of five (on a field) and started practicing "Scandinavian Flicks" at 14 (on non-public gravel roads). Following his time at the University of Journalism, he landed his first real job at the local franchise of Top Gear magazine a few years before Mircea (Panait). Not long after, Alex entered the New Media realm with the project.
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