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Project would turn local biomass into anhydrous ammonia for fertilizing crops

Backers of a proposed local project to manufacture anhydrous ammonia fertilizer see potential in corn fields. The biomass can be harnessed to make anhydrous ammonia, creating a regional supply chain and reducing reliance on outside sources. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

When they look at a cornfield or a bale of old hay, backers of a local anhydrous ammonia initiative don't see stalks and silage. They see potential. A multimillion-dollar project is under way to produce anhydrous ammonia fertilizer in Kandiyohi County by harnessing local biomass.

The project is still far from "a done deal," said Cathy Keuseman, agriculture and renewable energy specialist with the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

Numerous elements still need to come together, most notably the money and investors to help fund both the development phase of the project and the estimated $58 million it will take to build an anhydrous ammonia production facility somewhere in Kandiyohi County.

The project has been more than three years in the making.

It originated with the Economic Development Commission's agriculture committee, a volunteer group whose members saw opportunities in renewable energy and decided to aggressively pursue them.

They're now on the verge of seeing their vision turn into reality, Keuseman said. "They are dedicated volunteers."

If and when the project comes to fruition, it will be a major boost to the region's farming economy and reduce reliance on overseas makers of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer, Keuseman said.

"There's just a huge market," she said. "We can't find the negatives, and we're looking for them."

Anhydrous ammonia is one of the most common sources of nitrogen used as a crop fertilizer to enhance yields. Its high concentration makes it especially cost-effective for growers.

The technology already exists to manufacture anhydrous ammonia from biomass, said Steve Renquist, executive director of the Economic Development Commission.

A feasibility study with the Minnesota Department of Energy was completed earlier this year, concluding that the concept is cost-effective.

The project has the potential not only to benefit local farmers with a cheaper, reliable supply of fertilizer but also could open up a new market for them to sell corn stover, old hay, sweet-corn silage, used livestock bedding and other raw materials that go into making anhydrous ammonia, Renquist said.

"We have an abundance of agricultural biomass," he said. "We have an abundance of agricultural producers."

Projections suggest 5 million tons of biomass are available annually within a 50-mile radius -- more than enough to supply a local production plant that would manufacture an estimated 44,000 tons of anhydrous ammonia each year.

"We're trying to give our local farmers another source of cash," Renquist said.

Creating a supply chain could bring a $5 million value to the regional farm economy as well as create jobs, Keuseman said.

Organizers are now concentrating on one of the most challenging phases of the project: finding the money to finance it. Sources are being identified for the $1 million that will be needed to undertake a planning and engineering study, Keuseman said. Initial investors also are being lined up.

This phase of the project needs to be completed within a year, Keuseman said. Actual construction of an anhydrous ammonia production facility could be at least another one to two years away, she said.

Although she's frequently asked where the facility will be located, this is a decision that hasn't yet been made. "No site has been determined yet. That's what we will explore in phase two," she said. "We're taking it slow and being very thorough."

Renquist said it will also have to go through the permit process. Some preliminary talks have already taken place with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, he said.

There's a chance the project could fall apart in upcoming months but Renquist said he's optimistic it will continue to move forward.

"We believe we have all the makings for a successful project," he said. "Is this bold? Absolutely, but I see no reason why this can't work."