Wind to Nitrogen Fertilizer

We are pursuing a Grand Challenge – the challenge to feed the world while sustaining the environment. In the spirit of this grand challenge, a team of researchers across the University are pursuing an elegant concept in which wind energy, water, and air are used to produce nitrogen fertilizer. 

Energy generated from the wind is used to separate hydrogen from water. Nitrogen is pulled from air. The hydrogen and nitrogen are then combined to form nitrogen fertilizer that nourishes the plants surrounding the farmer. 

Next to water, nitrogen fertilizer is the most limiting nutrient for food production. Minnesota farmers import over $400 million of nitrogen fertilizer each year and are subjected to volatile price swings. Furthermore, nitrogen fertilizer is currently produced using fossil energy which contributes significantly to the carbon footprint of agricultural commodities.

Companies based in Minnesota are working to reduce the carbon footprint of their products. Consumers are demanding these changes so agricultural producers will need clean energy technologies.

In underdeveloped regions of the world, the challenges are different. Farmers have limited access to crop nutrients and carry sacks of nitrogen fertilizer on their back to small field plots that provide food for their families and villages. Localized nitrogen fertilizer production will allow for more food production in regions with high need.

A Renewable Hydrogen and Ammonia Pilot Plant was formally dedicated in the Summer of 2013 at the West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) in Morris. The pilot plant uses a portion of the wind energy generated from a nearby wind turbine to drive the production of nitrogen fertilizer. The pilot plant is believed to be the first of its kind in the world. At this time, the pilot plant uses conventional Haber Technology. However, technologies being developed in University labs have great potential to reduce the energy consumed and the cost of production. The ultimate goal is to commercialize renewable and sustainable fertilizer technologies for Minnesota companies as well as farmers across the state.

Our transdisciplinary research team is developin three novel nitrogen production technologies.

  • The first technology is Absorbent Enhanced Ammonia Production. Professors Ed Cussler, Lanny Schmidt, and Alon McCormick in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Material Science have developed a new technology for ammonia production which can circumvent thermodynamic equilibrium and allow economical small-scale production. Based on results so far, it is possible to achieve greater than 85% conversion to ammonia in a single pass over the catalyst bed—much greater than the typical 20% conversion achieved in large commercial plants.
  • Developed by Professor Roger Ruan and his team in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, the second technology is Non-Thermal Plasma Assisted Catalysis (NTP). A non-thermal plasma reactor can produce ammonia at much lower temperatures and pressures than the conventional Haber-Bosch ammonia synthesis process. Recently, techniques were developed which significantly improve the reaction and conversion efficiency.
  • The third technology involves the use of hydrochar derived from biomass to directly capture plant nutrients such as nitrogen or ammonia either via a production process or as part of bioremediation methods. The nitrogen enhanced hydrochar can then be used as a soil amendment. This technology is being developed by Professor Ken Valentas and his team within the Biotechnology Institute.

The Haber Bosch Process and the Green Revolution singularly addressed food supply. Today, the problem is more complex. We need to produce significantly more food AND use clean energy while protecting the environment for future generations.

In the spirit of Dr. Borlaug, our research team is striving to meet the grand challenge of feeding the world and sustaining the environment through a Green Nutrient Revolution.