Fertilizer created from wind power at Morris ROC.

MN Impact: A novel system for ammonia-based sustainable energy and agriculture

April 16, 2020

Issue

Nitrogen fertilizer is an essential part of the farming process. Minnesota farmers send more than $400 million a year out of the state to buy nitrogen fertilizer, most of which comes from outside the U.S. and leaves a hefty carbon footprint.

What has been done

A team of researchers from across the University of Minnesota has set out to develop a cleaner, more sustainable alternative to traditional nitrogen fertilizer. Their recipe relies on three abundant resources: air, water, and wind.

Traditional ammonia production requires the formation of molecular hydrogen, followed by contacting the hydrogen with molecular nitrogen over a catalyst in the Haber-Bosch process for ammonia synthesis—an inefficient process. 

The team turned to wind energy, a resource readily available in the same regions of the state where farmers need to fertilize their crops. Specifically, wind power fuels the removal of hydrogen from water, while a separate process extracts nitrogen from air. Running hydrogen and nitrogen through a chemical reaction can take the two elements and form ammonia, which can then be used as both fertilizer and fuel. 

Results

Using wind production and energy load data from the University of Minnesota Morris Campus and the West Central Research and Outreach Center, a case study using ammonia as energy storage has shown a low carbon credit cost of $17.60/tonCO2. In addition, University researchers have developed more efficient, renewable ammonia production technologies—several of which have patents. 

The research team is now partnering with collaborators across the nation and world with an aim to bring a large-scale demonstration project to Minnesota. With this ongoing research, Minnesota is well on its way to decarbonize the energy consumed in production agriculture. 

Graph Showing Energy Usage