Why you should care
Roger Gordon’s plans for ammonia could be a central component of a carbon-free future.
Advocates of America’s Green New Deal or other radical efforts to decarbonize the world economy in the face of a looming climate crisis may well have one of their greatest champions in a rumpled 65-year-old who lives in the Toronto suburbs.
Roger Gordon wears a navy wool coat that extends well past the bottom of his green knit sweater on a chilly day in February. He talks with a quintessentially Canadian politeness as he rails against what he sees as a massive conspiracy to suppress his life’s work — which could amount to a fuel revolution.
Ammonia has been used as both an alternative fuel source and a surplus energy storage mechanism since the 1800s, and while its production is far less damaging to the environment than traditional oil and gas, it’s not without its pollutants. In order to create NH3, the ammonia-based fuel, one would have to build a massive production facility that still burns large quantities of fossil fuels and releases significant amounts of carbon in the production process.
There’s actually no other zero-carbon fuel out there, so we really don’t have any competition.
But in 2014, Gordon — who’s spent his career producing active pharmaceutical ingredients for sale around the world — secured a patent for his long-time side project: a refrigerator-sized machine that turns water and air into a reusable, renewable, ammonia-based NH3. The project began in the early 2000s, and took almost nine years before it produced a usable prototype. The patent application was submitted the following year, at a time when Gordon says he didn’t even have transportation fuel on his radar. Today, he drives a converted Ford F-350 with a button on the dashboard that allows him to switch between traditional gasoline and one of the small tanks of colorless, strong-smelling NH3 gas sitting in back of the pickup truck.
“I didn’t have the wherewithal to try it as a transportation fuel,” Gordon explains in an interview at a shopping mall in Toronto. But researchers at the University of Iowa and the University of Michigan were driving on ammonia — and Gordon says they jumped at the idea of creating NH3 “with no heritage of oil or coal or anything that’s carbon.”
Anyone can retrofit a traditional combustion engine into one that runs on NH3 for about $1,000, and at least 100 others around the world have made the investment, but Gordon says the infrastructure required to change the global transportation industry is too overwhelming to even consider. Instead, Gordon sees opportunities in places that are spending significant resources on getting access to fuel, such as remote communities and industrial operations in Africa or northern Canada. “The lowest hanging fruit would be a mine in the far north that’s now spending $105 million on diesel fuel a year, and they can now come to us for half the price,” he says.
Though the price fluctuates, NH3 typically costs about $0.23 a liter ($0.85 per gallon) and has no byproducts other than harmless nitrogen and water. The lack of pollutants is especially appealing in places like Canada, which is now considering a tax on carbon. “There’s actually no other zero-carbon fuel out there, so we really don’t have any competition,” Gordon says. “Once the oil and natural gas ones are taxed for carbon, I don’t think there will be anything else.”
Over the years Gordon has impressed a number of Canadian bigwigs including Shark Tank investor Kevin O’Leary and even Justin Trudeau before he became the country’s prime minister, both of whom expressed enthusiasm for the project before getting further entangled in Canada’s touchy energy politics. One politician who has remained by his side is the former environmental commissioner of Gordon’s home province of Ontario, Gordon Miller, who says perhaps ammonia’s biggest advantage is it can be produced anywhere.
“Our energy systems are centralized and distributed from central locations at great costs,” he explains. “This is locally distributed generation, which is a huge opportunity, because we don’t have to bring the stuff in from strange countries and refine it and haul it thousands of miles, nor do we have to string wires to get it where it needs to be used.”
Instead, Miller sees a future where individuals generate and store their own electricity locally, using some of the power generated from private windmills immediately and storing the rest in the form of NH3 for later use.
As a recently retired politician in a relatively oil- and gas-friendly country, however, Miller understands what Gordon’s up against. Still, he takes the attention surrounding Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recently proposed Green New Deal as an indication that change could come suddenly, and swiftly. “It has so much potential, a breakthrough is possible at virtually anytime,” Miller says.
Others, however, are less optimistic, given the stranglehold one of the world’s most profitable industries has on global transportation and infrastructure. “Even if you’re the same cost or lower than fossil fuel, that doesn’t guarantee access to the market, because you don’t own the distribution,” says the president of Advanced Biofuels Canada, Ian Thomson. “Shifting away from a fossil-based industry can be a massive source of economic stimulation, but that does not take away at all from the fact that you face a lot of headwinds.”
After nearly two decades working on creating a clean, decentralized energy storage and fuel source, Gordon himself seems split on where he believes things go from here. Though he’s spoken with potential investors and interested parties all over the world, none have put money in. Several universities have expressed enthusiasm over its potential, but Gordon says it would take millions of dollars in testing to start to win over the political class, an investment he isn’t interested in making himself. He’s also made plenty of pleas to mainstream media, with little reporting to show for it.
“I just don’t know how it’s going to pan out,” he says. “Something might come out of nowhere.” Until then, Gordon maintains his pharma day job, putting just enough money into the project to keep it alive until it either takes off or it doesn’t. At least his commute is cheaper.
Read more: Africa embraces an $8 billion solar market for going off-grid.