The test plant will produce fertilizer for use on university farm land. But those working on the project say a similar system in which fertilizer is produced and sold nearby could contribute to the local economy.
It also would take advantage of the region’s wind potential while skirting that industry’s main hurdle of needing expensive transmission lines to ship electricity east to the urban areas that need it, Reese said.
“Rather than put that investment in transmission lines, why don’t we put that investment into an energy intense industry in rural areas where this renewable energy is at?” he asked. “It seems like kind of a no-brainer to me.”
The venture would again make anhydrous ammonia a renewable commodity, which it was until the 1950s and 1960s.
Fertilizer production in the early 1900s was powered primarily by hydroelectric dams, but companies scrapped that method after realizing they could make it more cheaply using natural gas.
Anhydrous ammonia is stored in pressurized tanks similar to propane, and it can be applied directly to fields or used as an ingredient in other nitrogen fertilizers. It’s shipped to farmers through a network of pipelines, railcars and tanker trucks.
The U.S. is the largest importer of fertilizer in the world, with more than half its nitrogen coming from overseas. The country imported about $1.4 billion worth of anhydrous ammonia in 2009, or 6.1 million U.S. tons, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Construction on the Morris plant began this week, and it should produce fertilizer by the end of the year.
The plant will use surplus wind energy generated onsite by a 1.65-megawatt wind turbine that already helps power the nearby campus.
The system creates fertilizer by using an air separation unit to pull nitrogen from the air, while the wind 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 Haber-Bosch.
The technology is proven, and using wind to power the electrolyzers instead of natural gas makes it a carbon-free process that releases no greenhouse gases.
The question is whether a renewably produced fertilizer can compete in the market. At the current price of about $500 a ton, that would be difficult. But if prices return to the near-$1,200-per-ton range seen a couple of years ago when natural gas prices spiked, “then sure, I believe it would work,” Reese said.