Research by the West Central Research and Outreach Center provides agriculture many benefits, include a unique way to make nitrogen fertilizer. The University of Minnesota facility in Morris, Minnesota, serves as an agriculture experiment station, with one of many focus areas on renewable energy. Michael Reese is the director of renewable energy at the center. He says a focus on wind energy started roughly 12 years ago, adding that renewable energy fits into the philosophy of farming.
“Since our clientele are mostly farmers, we saw renewable energy as a land resource, and it fit the farming philosophy of independence, production, and making the best use of land, as well as the conservation and environmental issues and stewardship surrounding renewable energy.”
The research seeks to reduce fossil energy consumption in production agriculture. Producing nitrogen fertilizer accounts for roughly 40% of the energy that goes into producing corn. Through the research, they found that using wind energy to help produce nitrogen fertilizer provides an option to reduce the energy intake.
“In 2005, we started working on producing nitrogen fertilizer from wind energy. We had a large-scale wind turbine here that was installed, and we ran into the same problems that a lot of developers run into in terms of a lack of transmission capacity and utilities really at that time didn’t want these small-scale wind farms. So we started looking at adding value to wind energy and found that nitrogen fertilizer production might make it work out for farmers, as well as rural communities.”
Reese explains the process to make nitrogen fertilizer by utilizing wind energy.
“That process involves taking wind energy, alkalizing water with that wind energy, at the same time, pulling nitrogen from the air, air is 78% nitrogen. We have core constituents of anhydrous ammonia which are nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas. And then we use the standard Haber-Bosch process to produce nitrogen fertilizer. The Haber-Bosch process is used in the conventional method, where they use natural gas, and it’s been around since the early 1900s.”
He says the West Central Research and Outreach Center provides many other benefits to farmers.
“If you take Minnesota, for example, we import all our synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. We don’t have any fossil fuel reserves like natural gas, and so we send out $500 million to $1 billion each year out of the state in order to bring that nitrogen fertilizer commodity in. We also have the opportunity to lower the carbon footprint of our feed, meat, and milk, as well as other products like ethanol, and that’s going to be a growing issue as we move forward. That’s coming down the road for farmers and our role is to develop tools to help farmers meet those new market strains and stresses.”