It’s somewhat fitting that for a period of several months, the site of one of Australia’s most advanced ventures into hydrogen production was marked by a small X painted on the ground.

The paint is now long gone, a flurry of construction work having taken its place. But the unobtrusive nature of the temporary landmark says plenty about the understated way in which Yara Pilbara goes about its business.

Yara Pilbara has long been one of the WA mining and resources sector’s quiet achievers, with its plant outside of Karratha producing between four and five per cent of the world’s tradeable ammonia (essential to fertiliser production) and supplying technical ammonium nitrate (a key ingredient for explosives) that underpins major mining activities throughout the region.

By next year the site will also be home to one of Australia’s first and largest production facilities for renewable hydrogen, a much talked-about commodity that has the long-term potential to help a huge range of industries decarbonise.

“At the start Project Yuri as it’s known will represent just 1 per cent of our total production,” Yara Pilbara General Manager Laurent Trost explained.

“But it’s a demonstration that the process can be scaled up to a bigger volume and that green hydrogen and then green ammonia production is really a possibility for the near future.”

At this point, it’s probably worth a quick (and very basic) chemistry lesson on the processes by which ammonia can be made.

Currently the Yara Pilbara plant uses locally-produced natural gas as a feedstock and a method known as steam methane reforming for its ammonia production.

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In layman’s terms CH4 (gas) is separated into its constituent molecules through a reaction with high-temperature steam, with the resultant H (hydrogen) combined with N (nitrogen) captured from the air to produce NH3 (ammonia).

Project Yuri will see renewable hydrogen produced using a variation of this technique. Water (H2O) will undergo a process of electrolysis using energy created from an on-site solar farm, separating into its molecules of H and O (oxygen). The renewable H is also able to be similarly combined with N to create ammonia.

The biggest advantage of this second model is that the only emission in producing hydrogen is oxygen, rather than the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) which is a byproduct of steam methane reforming.

Of course, that’s an extremely simplistic breakdown of very complex industrial manufacturing processes. And, as is often the case in industry, theory and practice are two different things.

Renewable hydrogen is yet to be produced at sufficient scale in a manner that is cost-effective enough to displace traditional production, which explains why the initial output from Yuri will be added to Yara Pilbara’s existing hydrogen production rather than replacing it.

But as Trost outlines, other technology can support decarbonisation ambitions in the short term while the renewable hydrogen landscape continues to evolve.

“Yara worldwide has an ambition to be fully green and clean by 2050,” he said.

“Yuri will allow our existing process to receive up to 15-20 per cent of renewable hydrogen in our feedstock and then produce 15-20 per cent of clean ammonia.

“We then still would have another 80 per cent to decarbonise and we think this will be possible through carbon capture and sequestration. Today we emit pure CO2 which could be captured before entering the atmosphere, compressed and stored permanently in depleted gas fields.

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“Working with our gas suppliers or other possible sequestration locations, we think it will be possible to have 60-80 per cent clean ammonia by 2030.

“That’s ambitious and we need to develop the projects that will make it happen but we really believe that we can go down that path.

“Then, of course, the next step will be a full green ammonia plant and we have a clear objective to have such production by 2040 here in Karratha.”

Project Yuri has been supported by $2 million funding from the WA Government’s Renewable Hydrogen Fund and $47.5 million from the Federal Government’s Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), which had earlier funded a study into the feasibility of the project.

The demonstration plant (featuring an 10MW electroylyser) and accompanying 18MW solar farm are being constructed in partnership with global low-carbon energy and services specialist ENGIE.

Once operational, it will also offer decarbonisation opportunities for other stakeholders.

In addition to its existing industrial and agricultural uses, ammonia has shown considerable potential as an alternative fuel for use in internal combustion engines, one which doesn’t emit CO2 and which seems particularly well-suited to the maritime environment.

“Producing clean ammonia will result in clean technical ammonium nitrate which will help the mining industry decarbonise,” Trost said.

“We also believe strong in ammonia as a fuel, especially for big seaborne vessels leaving the Pilbara. Today those vessels are powered by traditional fuels and need to make a 55-hour trip to Singapore just to refuel before going to places like China.

“We have signed a memorandum of understanding with Pilbara Ports Authority to develop bunkering [refueling] using ammonia rather than other fuels.

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“As we produce more clean ammonia, this can be a major contributor to decarbonising the iron ore fleet that goes to export.”