The Stinky Chemical in Cat Pee Could Fuel the Hydrogen Future

It's big lithium vs. sweet, precious felines...sort of.

How to power a greener future is a big question. Climate change is an extinction-level threat to a hell of a lot of life on earth, including us, but we don’t have a magic bullet solution for how to transition to cleaner technologies. Battery electric vehicles are currently dependent on lithium, which has significant environmental concerns, and cobalt, which has the same—or even if you switch to nickel, Russian city Norilsk can testify it’s not exactly an issue-free mining process.

Understandably, our promised hydrogen future keeps rearing its head as a possible alternative. The problem with hydrogen, though, is that it tends to be made from relatively dirty sources itself; natural gas, oil and coal are all used to make it in bulk, which kind of defeats the point of using it to power emissions-free vehicles. The other option is electrolysis of water, which is a great, clean source but not hugely efficient still, as you only get about 80 percent of the energy used to make the hydrogen back out of it, so you might as well have used that energy to charge a battery and get a much higher efficiency rate. There’s got to be something else, then, like ammonia.

Industrial ammonia is not from cats but my cat is very good and you should look at her, Hazel Southwell

This is where the cat pee comes in. A report in Chemical and Engineering News says that this could be another chance for ammonia—not one of the world’s most glamorized chemicals—to save the world.

Its previous shot at it was as fertilizer, powering modern farming that addressed food insecurity. That was because of the nitrogen part of NH3 but there is, of course, those three handy hydrogen molecules there, too.

“Green ammonia” uses hydrogen from sustainably powered electrolysis already and there’s a big buzz about it in the ammonia industry as farming—one of the most pollutant industries in the world—seeks to green itself. And as Chemical and Engineering News point out, there’s already infrastructure for transporting and distributing ammonia worldwide, through its agriculture use.

Transportating H2 has always been a problem since it’s really difficult to store, as a massively reactive gas. There’s the possibility of turning it into methanol and doing some of the most annoyingly inefficient things in the world but that involves carbon, which somewhat defeats the point unless you’re actually going the whole hog and making synthetic fuel

The prospect of hydrogen fuel cell cars is one that some automakers keep investing in no matter what advances are made by full battery-electrics. Hyundai, in particular, is investing majorly in hydrogen infrastructure alongside charging networks for battery vehicles and Toyota sees both fuel cells and hydrogen combustion as a possibility. This whole “green ammonia” bit has the potential but it is, nonetheless, a way out even in a best-case scenario.

If the hydrogen in ammonia can be properly exploited then, yeah, cat pee might save the world. But there are several problems to solve before we get there.

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