The Associated Press must be the only press release recipient for some major news. The University of Minnesota Renewable Energy Center at Morris Minnesota has designed a $3.75 million carbon-free system that uses wind power from a towering turbine to produce anhydrous ammonia, NH3, a the most common and widely used nitrogen fertilizer and a component of most other nitrogen fertilizers. Construction started on the Morris plant the week of June 7, 2010, and it should produce fertilizer by the end of the year.

The NH3 plant will use the surplus energy generated onsite by a 1.65-megawatt wind turbine that already helps power the nearby campus.

The U.S. is the largest importer of fertilizer in the world, with more than half its NH3 coming from overseas. The country imported about $1.4 billion worth of NH3 in 2009, or 6.1 million U.S. tons, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Wind Driven Hydrogen Production Plant in Utsira Norway. Click image for the largest view.

The system creates fertilizer by using an air separation unit to pull nitrogen from the air, while the turbine powers large electrolyzers that separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. The nitrogen and hydrogen are then synthesized into anhydrous ammonia using a century-old chemical process called the Haber-Bosch Process.  The technology is proven, a hydrogen system model is functioning in Utsira, Norway.  Using wind to power the electrolyzers instead of natural gas frees a large market share and makes NH3 production a carbon-free process that releases no greenhouse gases.

Wind Driven NH3 Process Block Diagram. Click image for the largest view.

The motive is easy to explain.  Before the oil price spike and the credit crisis NH3 would sell to farmers for near to $200 per ton.  At the current price of about $500 a ton, competition will be possible but difficult. But if prices return to the near-$1,200-per-ton range seen a couple of years ago when natural gas prices spiked the wind process would be wildly profitable.

The NH3 price issue is of great concern to the corn market and thus to food and ethanol production.  The 2008 price run-up was followed by a sharp drop, but many farmers had already contracted prices for the spring of 2009 and had to take the NH3 at the stunning high price.

John Holbrook of Richland, Washington based NHThree LLC , an ammonia expert exploring its use as a motor fuel points out the big impediment to a profitable wind-to-fertilizer system is the electrolyzer.  NHThree is working on a new process called solid-state ammonia synthesis, which could improve efficiency by bypassing the Haber-Bosch Process and the electrolyzer.  But UM at Morris is going ahead with their construction.

UM at Morris isn’t alone – San Francisco-based SynGest, Inc., plans to build an $80 million facility about 40 miles west of Des Moines, Iowa, that will produce ammonia fertilizer from corn cobs, and an Oregon nonprofit called the Northwest Hydrogen Alliance Inc. is studying the feasibility of storing energy by producing anhydrous ammonia using cheap excess hydropower at off-peak times during the spring melt to produce anhydrous ammonia for use as fertilizer or to store hydrogen.  There are lots of others, too working on NH3 fuel.

Check those numbers – that $1.4 billion divided by the 6.1 million tons comes to $229.51 leaving more than $270 per ton for transport, storage and profits from the $500 per ton current price.  Lots of people should want in the NH3 business.  The volumes are large enough that there’s 3100 miles of ammonia pipelines in the U.S.

The test plant will produce fertilizer for use on the university’s own research farmland.  The venture would again make NH3 a renewable commodity, which it was until the 1950s and 1960s.  NH3 production in the early 1900s was powered primarily by hydropower, but producers stopped that method after realizing they could make it more cheaply using natural gas.  Well, now the wind is free – it’s the capital cost and operating expense that’s at issue.

The researchers at the University of Minnesota deserve congratulations.  A search on wind and ammonia shows they’ve been at this for quite a while.  The incentives are strong, the capital expense significant and the impact of NH3 as a product in the national economy is far more fundamental that most people realize.

Production of hydrogen and on to NH3 has lots of potential from fertilizer or to use as a fuel.  Making NH3 would get the energy store into a low-pressure tank, that stays put and is easily transported.

Time will tell in the real numbers on viability.  The university pilot is small and loaded with research equipment – just how that relates to a commercial facility is yet to be seen

Michael Reese, director of the University of Minnesota Renewable Energy Center was quoted by the Associated Press saying, it’s a perfect supply-and-demand match, as the region has no shortage of wind and U.S. farmers use millions of tons of fertilizer

Its obvious now it can be done, just how low a price can be found?


8 Comments so far

  1. russ on June 15, 2010 5:57 AM

    What is not mentioned is if the facility will have variable production capacity to match the wind power available.

    If grid power is used to back up the wind then no big deal on the power side. For one mW of wind installed one mW of standard power will have to be made available.

    It would be a rare industrial process that would be able to match wind generated power availability – off hand I can’t think of any.

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  6. Wray Swanson on February 16, 2011 1:21 PM

    As a farmer, required to use NH3 fertilizers
    yearly, I have always wondered why it wasn’t
    possible to simply combine Nitrogen (air is 72% nitrogen) and Hydrogen (water is 2 molecules Hydrogen and one part Oxygen).

    Now, some smart people have caused this to become a ‘reality’. I wish them ‘well’ and
    success’. Fertilizer is quickly becoming
    unaffordable – profitable to use.

    Once a proven ‘windpowered’ source of NH3 is
    a reality, it would ‘awesome’ if smaller,
    complete NH3 producing units could be made available, to serve small communities that presently have easy access to windpower.

    We have a perfect situation, here in Southern
    Alberta. Endless wind, large market for NH3.

    Instead of several huge production plants, why
    not create small, compact, proven systems, that local Farm Coops could acquire, along with the installation of one or more wind turbines, all easily financed and developed
    through local Provincial and Federal Farm

    Such systems would bring industry and employment to smaller farming communities,
    that are presently dieing, due to a lack of an
    industrial base.

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  8. Theresa Bartolo on January 13, 2012 8:13 AM

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