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Keeping with the trend, cost for anhydrous ammonia has farmers seeking alternative production

WILLMAR -- Just like corn farmers who went out on a limb years ago to invest in ethanol plants, farmers may soon be considering the economic viability of investing in wind farms to create anhydrous ammonia from water.

Farmers are "big users" of anhydrous ammonia, the nitrogen-based fertilizer crucial for corn crops, said Bruce Reuss, chairman of the ag and renewable energy committee of the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.

Made from expensive natural gas that comes primarily from China, Africa and India, anhydrous ammonia has gone from $250 a ton five years ago to about $1,000 a ton today, said Michael Reese, renewable energy coordinator at the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris.

That has drastically increased farm input costs, and Reese said the U.S. can't "import its way out of this problem."

If anhydrous ammonia can be made from water by using wind energy that's generated in Kandiyohi County, local farmers and the local economy could reap benefits.

"It would be a real good fit for Kandiyohi County," said Reuss, who is a Kandiyohi County farmer.

The committee hosted a meeting Thursday to hear about the advancing technology and potential for local ownership of a renewable anhydrous ammonia production facility.

A $3.75 million pilot project is under way at the Morris research center to study just that.

Reese said creating a "load center" here would keep resources and money in the local economy. "Our focus is on local ownership of renewable energy," said Reese.

Steve Renquist, EDC director, said if the university's model proves that commercialization is economically viable, he wants Kandiyohi County farmers to be at the front of the pack and ready to move with a plan to develop and invest in a production facility.

"If you wait until it's a slam dunk," said Renquist, "everybody will be doing it."

Because of the initial investment in equipment, Reese said the short-term financial return may not be good, but he's optimistic about the long-term cost-benefit ratio. "We will be able to mitigate the risk factors," he said.

Besides the benefit of generating fertilizer in the Midwest, which is where it's used, Reese said the process is also another way to use "stranded" wind energy.

Although wind energy is abundant here, he said inadequate transmission lines and limited access to the electrical grid means much of that energy is wasted. Capturing it and using it to fuel an anhydrous ammonia facility could maximize renewable energy investment, reduce dependence on fertilizer made from foreign-based resources, increase the security for domestic fertilizer and biofuels and benefit the environment.

Construction of the Morris project will begin this fall.

Working in what he called the "living laboratory" for renewable energy at the Morris research center, Reese said researchers will take the wind energy from the center's 1.65-megawatt wind turbine and bring it to a piece of equipment called an electrolyzer, which will separate hydrogen from oxygen in water.

Nitrogen will then "be pulled from the air," said Reese. The hydrogen and nitrogen will be combined and passed through a catalyst of iron filings. By using the correct pressure and temperature, anhydrous ammonia is developed.

The small-scale plant is expected to produce a maximum of 1 ton of anhydrous ammonia a day.

The project has the potential for other value-added renewable energy options, including hydrogen fuel for transportation and production of electricity.

The project at Morris will look much like one currently being used in Utsira, Norway.

Ironically, Norway had been the leader 60 years ago using hydroelectric power to make ammonia. When the cheaper natural gas came along, the method was abandoned.

Now that natural gas prices have skyrocketed, Reese said there is an economic drive to return to the old methods.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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