Newlab Spotlight: Amogy Reimagines Zero-emission Transportation
What if the key to cleaner transportation was ammonia? Amogy is combining ammonia with fuel cell technology to create an affordable, energy-dense storage solution.
On All About Circuits' tour of Newlab, we encountered numerous movers and shakers in the hardware space, but one company, in particular, stood out to us. That company is Amogy, a group focused on the complete decarbonization of transportation through the novel use of ammonia as a fuel.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Seonghoon Woo, co-founder and CEO at Amogy, to learn about the company’s background, technology, and goals for the future of clean transportation.
Amogy's Backstory: A Tale of Four MIT Doctoral Students
Like many next-generation tech companies, Amogy has its roots in academia: all four co-founders became friends while pursuing their individual—and unrelated—PhDs at MIT. Unlike many companies, however, the path from research to industry was not entirely direct or intentional.
Woo recounts, “Since graduating from MIT, we basically built different careers in different industries. The CTO of our company studied a lot about chemical hydrogen carrier materials. From time to time, we’d get together to talk about our own careers and expertise and try to figure out what we could do together to build a company. We wanted to make an impact in the future.”
These casual business chats shifted into serious logistics during the pandemic.
“We spent two months really digging into details of each one of our technologies. We found that our CTO’s technology was very mature and the timing was right; the world was really waiting on clean fuels.”
One of Amogy’s three working lab spaces in Newlab.
At this point, Woo, who spearheaded most of the “business side” of this venture, began the daunting process of cold emailing venture capitalists and Newlab. Impressed by their technology, Newlab accepted Amogy to the tech lab and VCs followed suit, providing them millions of dollars to fund their startup.
Woo, who was working for IBM in New York at the time, faced the only remaining challenge. He had to convince the rest of his friends, all of whom had moved to South Korea, to relocate to New York and make Amogy a reality—which, thankfully, they did.
As many governments globally set ambitious goals to electrify vehicles and move to renewable energy, Amogy is taking a different approach to achieve carbon neutrality for transportation. Hydrogen fuel cells are often pitched as a magic bullet fuel solution, but Amogy is instead turning its attention to ammonia.
While hydrogen has become a popular clean fuel, it has a number of problems, Woo explains. One of these problems is that hydrogen has a very low ambient temperature density, meaning that it has a low energy per unit volume. Hydrogen is also stored as a gas, which makes it difficult to harbor enough of the element to achieve a conventional driving range. Currently, the storage and delivery infrastructure that exists for hydrogen is not yet mature, presenting a major obstacle to hydrogen fuel cell adoption.
Diagram of how hydrogen storage works. Image used courtesy of the Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy
Amogy proposes that ammonia, on the other hand, may hold the key to solving these issues.
“The first big advantage of ammonia is that it has been used in different industries for over 100 years, specifically in agriculture where ammonia fertilizer made the food revolution. This means that ammonia is widely available, cheap, and the infrastructure already exists,” Woo says. “The second advantage of using ammonia is that given its volume and weight, it has the highest energy density among the clean fuels.”
Another added benefit, Woo notes, is that ammonia allows for liquid refueling akin to gasoline refueling. This may smooth its adoption for quick recharging relative to electric vehicles.
The Best of Both Worlds: Ammonia Plus Hydrogen Fuel Cells
Amogy has found a way to combine ammonia’s best qualities—volumetric energy density, ease of storage, and existing infrastructure—with the clean energy production of a hydrogen fuel cell.
In an Amogy system, ammonia is stored and converted into hydrogen onboard. This hydrogen is then used in a standard hydrogen fuel cell, which ultimately creates the energy needed for transportation.
“We are using ammonia as a hydrogen carrier, meaning that in our process, we are still using the fuel cell technology. But instead of using hydrogen as a fuel, we use ammonia,” Woo explains. “Our machine is converting ammonia to hydrogen onboard whenever needed within the vehicle. Then hydrogen goes into the fuel cell, which makes electricity. That's the process intuitively.”
Pictured is an Amogy chemical reactor that can provide enough energy to be used in a commercial car.
Converting ammonia to hydrogen and then hydrogen to electricity decreases the system's overall efficiency—50% for a hydrogen fuel cell and 40% for Amogy’s solution. Still, the net result ends up far surpassing a standard hydrogen fuel cell.
Since ammonia has a higher energy density than hydrogen, much more energy can be stored in the same volume. Even if a developer sacrifices some efficiency and volume by requiring more hardware, the overall energy density and power output of the entire system is much higher.
Comparison of energy density among batteries, hydrogen, and Amogy's ammonia-based solution. Image used courtesy of Amogy
This combined with the fact that ammonia is readily abundant, cheap, and easy to store makes ammonia a no-brainer for Amogy. The result is a system that has an energy density of over 700 Wh/kg and costs less than $0.25 per kWh.
Amogy Aims for a Turnkey Solution
Amogy's goal is to become an energy storage provider for transportation OEMs who will then build their systems around Amogy’s technology. In order to do this, Amogy must offer customers a turnkey solution that can be easily integrated into existing vehicles.
To this end, one of the biggest technical challenges is integrating all the aspects of Amogy's solution.
“We have a bunch of people developing the chemical side—the reactor for converting ammonia to hydrogen. But that has to be controlled. That has to be integrated together with the other part of the system, which includes the battery or fuel cell,” Woo says. “We have electrical engineers working hard to integrate that together, so that we as a company can provide a turnkey solution for customers to just receive our power system implemented into their vehicles.”
Amogy has demonstrated the capability of its system by building an ammonia-powered drone. The device shows the major components in Amogy’s system including the reactor on top.
Woo tells us that Amogy has no intentions of competing with the lithium-ion battery. Instead, their system will be a complementary solution that will work together with the battery in long-distance transportation—like in ships, trucks, and airplanes.
In these applications, Woo asserts, “You can't use a battery at all because it's too heavy and too large. It would not be physically possible to cross the Atlantic or Pacific. But if you look at those large transportation systems, they generate a significant amount of greenhouse gases.”
One key benefit of using ammonia as fuel is its low carbon footprint—a stark contrast to existing solutions.
An Ammonia-fueled Path to Carbon-neutral Transportation?
Since its official launch in March 2021, Amogy has now grown its employee base to nearly 30 (as of the end of 2021) while also recently securing an additional $20M in funding. Now, the company’s success will rely heavily on how quickly it can move.
“We want to be ready with the prototype when the time is right—before it gets too late,” Woo comments. “You want to come up with the very first product because we can’t decarbonize the whole industry by ourselves. It's never possible. We have to work together with the partners—the upstream partners, the infrastructure builders—to really get them excited and make a collaborative effort.”
Woo concludes, “We want to come up with something feasible—fully-functioning vehicles—as soon as possible, so that we can start those collaborations.”
Optimistically, Woo thinks that around the fall of 2022, Amogy will have fully working prototypes of ammonia-fueled heavy-duty transportation, like a truck. With a lofty goal of reducing 10% of total GHG emissions by 2040, Amogy’s success can potentially reshape the future of cleaner transportation.
Editor's note: This article is the third part of a news series that covers companies and topics related to Brooklyn's Newlab—a facility that All About Circuits toured. Catch up on our first article exploring what goes on in a tech lab and our second piece on the female leaders driving hardware innovation within Newlab.