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West Central Research & Outreach Center Renewable Hydrogen and Ammonia Pilot Plant Dedication

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A unique opportunity to learn about renewable fertilizer production and experience a broad mix of renewable energy systems

Supplement to the Morris Sun Tribune, Saturday, July 6, 2013



Saturday, July 6, 2013

The future of fertilizer—wind to hydrogen to ammonia By K i m U k u r a Sun Tribune

The first large-scale, research-oriented wind turbine ever constructed at a public university in the U.S. began generating power in March 2005 and produces 5.6 million kilowatt hours of power each year. Now, this wind turbine is powering a wind to hydrogen to ammonia facility to affordably create fertilizer from renewable energy. D a v i d H a n s e n/University of Minnesota

In the 1970s, the West C e n t r a l Re s e a r c h a n d Outreach Center was home to an ethanol pilot plant, a decade before that industry took off in Minnesota. Today, the WCROC is home to an equally forward-thinking project that uses wind, water and air to produce nitrogen fertilizer for local farms. Although the technology at the core of the Renewable Hydrogen and Ammonia Production Pilot Plant is old, dating back to around World War I, the WCROC’s implementation of a small-scale renewable energy system is novel – perhaps the first of its kind in the world. The pilot plant is the most recent advance in a broader renewable energy program that the WCROC has been developing since 2001 when a group of scientists, administrators and legislators sat down and sketched out a plan on the back of a napkin at DeToy’s restaurant in Morris. “We were looking for research opportunities

that were outside of the traditional crops and livestock, looking to improve farmer’s profitability as well as rural economies,” said Mike Reese, WCROC director of renewable energy. Even at the time, west central Minnesota had a unique collection of resources – biomass, wind energy, solar energy. Staff at the WCROC felt they could play a role in developing applied research around these technologies. L e g i s l a t ive f u n d i n g jump-starts the prog ra m One of Senator Torrey Westrom’s frequent campaign anecdotes is about the WCROC. In 2002, Westrom and staff at the WCROC and the University of Minnesota, Morris met at DeToy’s to sketch out plans for the renewable energ y program on the back of a napkin, Westrom recalls. Westrom helped give the renewable energy program a jump in 2003 when, as a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives,he helped secure $3 million in fund-

ing provided by Xcel E n e r g y fo r re n ew abl e energy development. Part of the agreement was that a rural site would be selected for renewable energy demonstration projects, said Westrom. At the time, Westrom said there were a lot of skeptics in the legislature, making the project a bit of a tough sell. However, he c re d i t s Re e s e, G re g Cuomo, head of the WCROC from 2000 to 2006, and Lowell Rasmussen, UMM vice chancellor for finance and facilities, for being able to sell the project and put forth a vision for the technology. “Without the base fores i g h t o f t h e WC RO C – Mike, Greg, and Lowell Rasmussen – being able to wo rk w i t h t h e m , t h e WCROC wouldn’t have been in a position to have this,” said Westrom. Most of the WCROC’s funding went to putting up the first wind turbine, which was dedicated in April 2005, which helped to build the rest of the renewable energy program.

Pilot Plant continued on page 3

Saturday, July 6, 2013



Pilot Plant continued from page 2 The wind turbine faced many of the same challenges that other wind developers and small utilities face – lack of transmission capacity and energy production at inconsistent times – so researchers at the WCROC started to look at ways to store wind energy and add value to it. “We star ted talking about hydrogen and how hydrogen is a great way to store energy, which is a big problem in the energ y industry,” said Cuomo, who now serves as associate dean for extension and outreach in the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Re s o u rc e Sciences. But creating hydrogen for new technology like cars or fuel is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. There isn’t enough available hydrogen to make developing that technolog y viable, but without viable uses, there isn’t a growing market for hydrogen. Rather than wait for a market to grow, scientists at the WCROC decided to

look locally and focus on developing a use for hydrogen that would support rural, agricultural economic development, said Cuomo. “If you had wind energy from a wind turbine, the best economic use would be to have choices – you could sell electricity if the p r i c e s we re h i g h , yo u could make and sell hydrogen, or you could make anhydrous ammonia,” Cuomo explained. “All those rural communities could use these types of systems and have a market for that anhydrous ammonia in agriculture.” The path to anhydrous ammonia was set in motion, in part, at the wind turbine dedication in April 2005. A representative from Norsk Hydro, a Norwegian company with a history of nitrogen fertilizer production, attended the event. The WCROC formed a partnership with the company, who provided resources and support as the pilot plant was first b e i n g d eve l o p e d , s a i d Reese. Funding for the pilot plant began to come together in 2005. First, the

WCROC receive $800,000 through a grant from the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources. Next, Westrom helped secure about $2.5 million from the legislature for the p r o j e c t . F i n a l l y, t h e University of Minnesota contributed $450,000 to raise the $3.75 million needed for the plant. B u i l d i n g a p ro g r a m p r o j e c t by p r o j e c t The philosophy of the overall renewable energy program has been to think in pieces, making sure that each additional element could work as a standalone research project and as part of a larger system - keeping options open while still building a sys-

tem with discrete, useful projects, Cuomo said. “For example, the first g rant we got around renewable hydrogen was to put in a generator that runs on hydrogen,” said Cuomo. “That could be completed and if nothing else further was funded, we would still be in a good place and have that hydrogen.” The overall focus on economic development and using resources in west central Minnesota helped the program stay on track while still being flexible enough to take on new opportunities when they arose, Cuomo said.

Pilot Plant continued on page 4

The Wind to Hydrogen to Ammonia Pilot Plant at the WCROC began producing ammonia early in 2013. D a v i d H a n s e n/University of Minnesota



Saturday, July 6, 2013

Pilot Plant continued from page 3 “Even though they’re production systems, like the biomass plant or the wind turbine, we built a research program around them – I think that’s unique,” said Reese. D e s p i t e d e l ay s , p i l o t p l a n t g e t s u p a n d ru nning The design for the pilot plant went through a “pretty in-depth” process for approvals at the university and state level, as well as a couple design iterations for the plant, said Reese. Once the design was approved and finalized in December 2009, construction on the plant initially moved forward quickly. By the fall of 2010, both the hydrogen and nitrogen generators were up and running. But to make anhydrous ammonia, those two elements needed to be combined in a speciallydesigned, pilot-scale reactor. There were a lot of problems with getting the system delivered, causing a two-year delay on the project, said Reese. By learning how to store wind power for hydrogen production, the WCROC can provide a renewable, plentiful and clean energy source. D a v i d H a n s e n/University of Minnesota

The reactor arrived at the WCROC in July 2012, and was hooked up to the system by November 2012. Two months later, the pilot plant produced the first batch of anhydrous ammonia in January 2013. Since then, scientists at the WCROC have been refining the control systems and developing a safety evaluation and review in preparation for putting the plant into production mode full time. “We feel pretty comfortable now with operations,” said Reese. “We’re still fine-tuning and working out some of the issues. It’s a research project, obviously, and we’ve got a couple things we’re taking care of before we’re a continuous and full-time operation.” To lear n more about how the pilot plant works, turn to page 5. To read more about the future research opportunities the plant will provide, turn to page 9.

Saturday, July 6, 2013



How it works: wind+water+air = fertilizer By K i m U k u r a Sun Tribune The Re n ew abl e Hydrogen and Ammonia Production Pilot Plant produces ammonia by combining nitrogen and hydrogen in a process discovered and developed by German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. Haber first discovered the process to manufacture ammonia in 1909, and was awarded a Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work. After demonstrating the technology, Haber’s discovery was purchased by BASF, a German chemical company. Bosch was tasked with scaling up Haber’s machine to an industrial production level using a catalyst and high-pressure methods. He was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1931 along with scientist Friedrich Bergius for this work. “It’s a f airly simple process – you don’t need a lot of moving parts, you just need to move the gas around and get it up to temperature,then cool it,”said Eric Buchanan, a renew-

able energy scientist with the West Central Research and Outreach Center. About 10 percent of the total energy generated by the wind turbine is used to make anhydrous ammonia. It takes about seven kilowatt hours of electricity to produce one pound of anhydrous ammonia. For comparison, the turbine provides UMM with 5.6 million kilowatt hours of power each year. The Haber Bosch process is about 10 to 20 percent efficient, on par with this same process powered by natural gas or other fossil fuels. The anhydrous ammonia can be used directly on farm fields when soil conditions are optimal. A n hyd ro u s a m m o n i a immediately turns into a gas as soon as it hits the air, so it needs to be applied directly to soil to bond with water molecules in order to stick, said Buchanan. Most other for ms of nitrogen fertilizer start as anhydrous ammonia, so a future research initiative will look at further processing the plant’s ammo-

nia into other for ms of nitrogen fertilizer, said Mike Reese, WCROC director of renewable energy. The original goal with the plant was to produce enough fertilizer for the f a r m s a t t h e WC RO C . However, since many of the fields are now organic to feed the center’s organic dairy herd, there isn’t as much use for the anhydrous ammonia. Both the Morris Co-op and Hancock Co-op have agreed to take as much anhydrous ammonia as the plant can produce, but since the plant is a research project, production for market isn’t the primary goal, said Reese. “Our goal isn’t so much to make a certain amount of ammonia as it is to really quantify how much energy all the different steps take to make ammonia in this way or other ways as we make changes to it to try and make it more efficient,” said Buchanan.

continued on page 8 Wind energy, water and air would replace natural gas as the core ingredients in the production of nitrogen fertilizer in the pilot plant operating at WCROC under the watchful eye of engineer Cory Marquart. D a v i d H a n s e n/University of Minnesota



Saturday, July 6, 2013

How it works continued from page 5 H o w t h e Re n e w a b l e H yd ro g e n a n d A m m o n i a P i l o t P l a n t W o rk s ( s e e ch a r t o n p a g e s 6 a n d 7 ) 1. Nitrogen and hydrog e n a re c re at e d u s i n g w i n d , a i r a n d w a t e r.

Nitrogen is pulled out of the air by pressurizing air to vent out the oxygen, carbon dioxide and other c h e m i c a l s a n d l e av e behind the nitrogen molecules. A current of electricity produced by the wind turbine is put into water, splitting the hydro-

gen and oxygen. The oxygen is vented off to leave behind pure hydrogen. 2. The pure nitrogen and hydrogen – at a ratio of one part hydrogen to three parts nitrogen – are mixed together and pumped into a compressor. 3. The combined nitrog e n a n d hyd ro g e n a re pushed through a series of heat exchangers and an

electric heater to raise the temperature to 800 degrees F. 4. This splits the nitrogen molecules into nitrog en atoms so they can spontaneously combine with the hydrogen to form ammonia (NH3) in a reactor. 5. When the nitrogen and hydrogen combine, it gives off extra heat in an

exothermic reaction. As a result, the gas comes out of the reactor hotter than when it went in. The extraheated ammonia gas is pumped back through the exchangers where it is used to help heat up the uncombined nitrogen and hydrogen. 6. The ammonia gas is chilled further in a condenser and chiller that

brings it down to about -10 degrees F. 7. At a cool temperature, the ammonia liquifies and falls to the bottom of a separator. Any extra nitrogen and hydrogen that aren’t turned into ammonia are recycled back into the system, while the ammonia is shipped to a storage tank.

Engineer Cory Marquart (left) is part of the Renewable Energy facility at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in D a v i d H a n s e n/University of Minnesota Morris.

Saturday, July 6, 2013



Piloting renewable research into the future By K i m U k u r a Sun Tribune Even before the Renewable Hydrogen and Ammonia Production Pilot Plant was up and running, researchers and businesses from around the world expressed interest in partnering with the West Central Research and Outreach Center on specific projects. The WCROC has already brought in around $650,000 in grants for specific research projects related to pilot plant. Because the plant is just going through its first weeks of continuous operation, junior scientist Cory Marquart, who oversees the day-to-day operation of the plant, will continue to work out bugs and look for leaks in the system. “The process has to heat up and cool down, so you’re going to have leaks now and then,” said Marquart. “It’s just a matter of going out and finding them.” First, scientists will need to look at the basic operation of the system: How much energy it takes to make anhydrous ammo-

nia? Are there ways to make it more efficient? What are the operational and maintenance requirements for the system? N e x t , s c i e n t i s t Jo e l Tallaksen will work on a life-cycle analysis that will include the energy inputs of the plant as well as the inputs needed for the wind turbine itself. This project will include some collaborative research with scientists at the Swedish U n ive r s i t y of Agricultural Sciences and Lund University to see how energy use in the system works in the United States versus a typical agricultural use in Sweden. “I’m also interested in how this influences farm life-cycle analysis,” said Tallaksen. “So, if it’s saving us so much energy to m a k e t h i s a n hy d r o u s ammonia and then we’re using it on the farm, how much energy are we saving in the total farm output?” An economic evaluation of the process is being conducted by University of Minnesota Economist Doug Tiffany.

L o w e r i n g e n e r g y, i m p r ov i n g e f f i c i e n c y The WCROC has two planned research projects to look at two processes being developed at the university that could be more efficient for a small-scale system. The first, non-thermal plasma, would look at how an electric charge like those found in a neon light could be used to produce ammonia by removing the plant’s reactor, compressor and heat exchangers to create a smaller system that could use less energy, said Buchanan. A second is an absorbent that may be able to convert more of the gasses in the system into ammonia to make the overall system more efficient. R i g h t n o w, t h e H a b e r Bosch process is only about 10 to 20 percent effi-

cient. Re n ew a bl e e n e rg y f aculty As a direct result of the renewable energ y program at the WCROC, the University of Minnesota will be hiring a faculty member tasked with doing research that helps bring focus to technology like the turbine and renewable hydrogen and ammonia pilot plant. “It will enable us to not only be strong on the demonstration and application side, but it will also be able to utilize these f a c i l i t i e s fo r discovery, new knowledge and to help move the industry forward,” said Gre g Cuomo, associate dean

for extension and outreach i n t h e U n ive r s i t y o f Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Re s o u rc e Sciences. The renewable energy scientist will be the first faculty member in the state-wide research and outreach center system that will be teaching online classes for undergraduate students. “ We ’ r e l o o k i n g f o r

someone who can use the technologies that are available today to make the kind of classes you can offer from Morris available anywhere in the world,” said Cuomo.

continued on page 10

The Renewable Energy Research facility at WCROC includes (from left) Joel Tallackson, Cory Marquart, Mike Reese and Eric Buchanan. At left, Buchanan monitors the ammonai process flow. D a v i d H a n s e n/University of Minnesota



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Future projects continued from page 9 A m m o n i a - p ow e re d ve h i c l e s The research program has also led to some research relationships, including one with Toro, a Twin Cities-based manufacturer of turf and landscape maintenance equipment. The company had been working on a program to develop hydrogen-powered lawn equipment to mow golf courses near million dollar homes in the suburbs that would work more quietly than traditional mowers. To ro d eve l o p e d t wo hydrogen-fuel cell utility vehicles as par t of a research project on the technology. Because the WCROC is interested in looking at how to convert hydrogenp owe re d ve h i cl e s i n t o ammonia-powered vehicles, Toro donated the two mowers for research purposes after it became clear the market wasn’t ready for the product yet. “One of the challenges – and why we want to go to ammonia – is that hydrogen is a difficult fuel,” said Reese. “Ammonia is a little easier to transport.”

One aspect of the wind to hydrogen pilot project includes the use of hydrogen internal combustion engines in farm vehicles. WCROC received two hydrogen-fuel cell mowers from Toro for research purposes. D a v i d H a n s e n/University of Minnesota

next step with a new five- to 1 0 - ye a r s t r at e g i c p l a n focused on reducing the use of fossil energy in agriculture to reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture. “Even if farmers personally don’t agree with global warming or global climate change, at some level it doesn’t matter because the customer is always right,” said Reese.” Customers and end-users drive markets and they’re driving companies like Coca Cola, General Mills and other processors and wholesalers to reduce the carbon footprint of their food. Farmers need to have tools to adapt at some point in the future.” Today, nitrogen fertilizer is one of the biggest contributors to the carbon

footprint of agricultural s y s t e m s, w h e t h e r i t ’s wheat used directly for bread or corn used to feed cattle and pigs. “Once we have this system in place, we’ve taken a big piece of that carbon footprint pie out,” said R e e s e . “ We c a n s t a r t addressing some of the other sources of added carbon into that system.” By shifting focus towards this issue now, Reese said the WCROC can help get technologies in place for when the market changes and when it becomes more economical to invest in renewable energy and fertilizer. “Each little piece we can find that helps us reduce energy will help us reduce the overall picture,” said Tallaksen.

R e d u c e fo s s i l f u e l u s e i n a g r i c u l t u re Now that the WCROC has reached a point where the renewable energy program is a core speciality, staff are poised to take the Mike Reese is the director of Renewable Energy Research at WCROC. D a v i d H a n s e n/University of Minnesota

Saturday, July 6, 2013


West Central Research & Outreach Center Renewable Energy Program R e n ew a b l e H yd ro g e n Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the world. Since 1890 when Danish scientist Poul La Cour produced hydrogen with wind energy, the use of hydro gen for transportation fuel and electrical generation has intrigued scientists, policy m a ke r s, a n d i n d u s t r y. Hydrogen is difficult to store and transport but can be a clean fuel. Hydrogen may be the future energy carrier of choice, but an intermediate step is needed. Hydrogen is currently used to produce nitrogen fertilizer. Hydrogen and nitrogen gas can be produced using wind energy, water, and air. When combined, the elements form a n hyd ro u s a m m o n i a which is a vital nutrient for crops g rown in the Midwest. W i n d t o H yd ro g e n t o Ammonia Pilot Plant In March of 2005, a utility scale wind turbine was constructed at the WCROC. T hrough this process, several barriers became evident that limite d t h e d eve l o p m e n t o f wind energy in the Midwest. The two main barriers were the inherent inter mittency of wind energ y and the lack of transmission grid capacity necessary to move the resource to load centers.To address these barriers, in 2005, the WCROC sought and received an $800,000 grant from the Legislative Citizens Commission on M i n n e s o t a Re s o u r c e s (LCCMR) to demonstrate the process in which wind energ y is used to electrolyze water to create hydrogen thereby "stori n g " w i n d e n e r g y. T h e hydrogen is then used in an internal combustion generator set to provide peak or base load power. Staff at the WCROC also began exploring alternatives to create value-added products from wind energy and hydrogen. Because of its utilization as a primary agricultural nitrogen fertilizer product in the M i dwe s t , a n hyd ro u s ammonia (NH3) came to the top as a viable candidate for further study. An elegant model was envisioned in which farmers could utilize wind energy that blows across their land to create a value-

added nitrogen fertilizer source which can then be applied back to fields to nourish their crops. The w i n d - t o - hy d r o g e n - t o anhydrous ammonia pilot plant provides a flexible model capable of energy storage through the production and utilization of hydrogen for transportation fuel and electrical generation. In addition, anhydrous ammonia can be produced for fuel, electrical generation, and as nitrogen fertilizer. T h i s f a c i l i t y i s i m p o rt a n t t o t h e U n iv e r s i t y o f Minnesota because it: • Provides a globally unique research facility to address the critical barriers in storing and adding value to wind energy and other renewable electrical energy systems

• Assists in addressing key issues within agricult u r e , e n e r g y, r u r a l economies, and the environment • Helps reduce agriculture's reliance on fossil fuels and can dramatically lower the carbon footprint • Creates a format for public and private collaborations in several emerging sectors • Addresses an opportun i t y fo r i m p ove r i s h e d countries to produce their own source of nitrogen fertilizer, of which, next to water, is the most critical nutrient for plant growth and food production

The wind to hydrogen to ammonia technology being researched at WCROC could potentially replace 10-20 percent of the state’s natural gas consumption. D a v i d H a n s e n/University of Minnesota


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