Grain dryer experiment will put 'green ammonia' to the test

June 28, 2022

By Jeff Beach, AgWeek

Can “green ammonia'' be an efficient fuel for drying down grain?

Seamus Kane is working to prove that it can be.

Kane is a University of Minnesota researcher who is about to wrap up three years of work by testing out an ammonia-fueled grain dryer at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris.

Kane said the test will be fairly small, “just to prove the concept. We don’t want to go too big, too quickly.” But it’s part of a bigger picture, where he sees the potential for wind or solar energy to power an ammonia plant in Minnesota to create a more local source of fuel and fertilizer that is more friendly to the environment and makes economic sense.

“We have the energy, we have the technology, we just don’t have the plant,” Kane said.

Inflation in the fuel sector may provide the financial incentive to change that.

“Ammonia is so incredibly expensive right now from natural gas that I think it’s starting to look very financially feasible to start putting up green ammonia plants,” Kane said.

Mike Reese, the renewable energy director at West Central Research and Outreach Center, said during a June 15 talk at the Midwest Farm Energy Conference in Morris, that the potential to make “green ammonia” using renewable energy could be “transformative” for agriculture.

Using figures developed at the center, by substituting green ammonia for nitrogen fertilizer, the fossil energy footprint of corn production could be reduced by 36%.

“It’s a drop in, you don’t have to make any changes at the farm level,” Reese said of green ammonia.

If green ammonia is used for drying grain, that could drop the corn fossil footprint another 42%

“So if you are able to convert your natural gas propane dryer to green ammonia, you can reduce your fossil energy footprint close to 80%,” Reese said. “To me, that’s transformative.”

For the grain dryer test, they will use a GT industries 245XL grain dryer that’s been converted from propane to ammonia.

The burner ring had to be replaced to account for ammonia being more corrosive and differences in the way ammonia behaves compared to propane.

Kane said his research so far indicates an ammonia fueled grain dryer should be able to operate with almost no emissions.

This is not Kane’s first ammonia research project. He worked on a similar project to design an ammonia-powered tractor. But those results were not very encouraging.

Kane learned that one drawback to ammonia as a fuel is that it didn't work very well when the tractor had to idle. While it will burn without emitting carbon dioxide, it will emit other greenhouse gasses. 

But where it performs very well is when the need for energy is constant — like a grain dryer.

But for the grain dryer, he said the university is working on patents and with its commercialization office to bring a product to market.

“We see a lot of promise and so does our commercialization office,” Kane said.

Kane is working on other projects looking at ammonia as a fuel source and ammonia in general is getting more attention.

“The U.S. is a couple years behind the ammonia energy trend,” Kane said, with Europe, Japan and Australia all being farther along. “But we’re really accelerating.”