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AURI is Working to Harness the Benefits of Green Ammonia & the Hydrogen Economy for Region’s Ag Industry

The concept of “Green Ammonia” and “Green Hydrogen” refers to the production of ammonia and hydrogen that is 100 percent renewable and carbon free. These emerging technologies are exciting due to their potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from farming operations and provide farmers another way to earn revenue from emerging carbon markets.

The market also has significant economic potential for the Upper Midwest’s agricultural industry. As green ammonia and green hydrogen gain traction in the coming decade, supporters envision a connected network of stations and power plants dotting the area bringing new jobs and investment into local communities.

Green ammonia has many uses as an energy source – it can run grain dryers, light and heat homes as well as commercial buildings. Another option is turning it into a fuel to power a tractor or vehicle. Lastly, it can be drop-in fertilizer replacement for farmers. 

New Opportunities for the Ag Industry

The Agricultural Utilization Research Institute’s (AURI) goal for participating in the green hydrogen and green ammonia space is to look for opportunities for the agriculture industry to benefit and to add value back to the state’s producers, said Rod Larkins, AURI’s senior director of science and technology.  

In addition to practical applications, there are environmental benefits. Green ammonia can help the agriculture sector significantly reduce its carbon footprint. Nitrogen fertilizer production represents about 1 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s 2018 greenhouse gas emissions data, the forestry and agriculture industries in Minnesota are the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for 20 to 25 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Using data from the 2016 crop year, the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center estimates that up to 75 percent of the fossil energy footprint could be reduced by using green ammonia as fertilizer, fuel for grain drying and for electricity generation.  

There are many groups around the world working on developing green ammonia and green hydrogen for commercial purposes. Europe, Canada and parts of Asia are far ahead of the U.S. in both technology and commercial investment. Public-private partnerships are developing across the world on a significant commercial scale. The country of France, for example, has invested $8.3 billion into clean hydrogen energy uses in industrial and transport sectors with aggressive plans to cut the country’s carbon dioxide output by 2030 by the equivalent of the annual emissions of the city of Paris. 

The Upper Midwest has all the necessary factors to be a significant player in the market – a robust infrastructure and high demand for anhydrous ammonia and nitrogen fertilizer in the region. Plus, groups like the University of Minnesota and others have been doing cutting-edge research with hydrogen and renewable energy for decades. 

What has been missing up until this point is a connecting place for the parties working in different areas of this field to ask questions, share knowledge and incubate ideas. This is where AURI comes in. AURI has been working closely with a handful of organizations across the region to spearhead a collaborative approach to advance opportunities in this space.

AURI has been exploring green ammonia and the hydrogen economy for a few years, said Stanislawski, one of AURI’s business development directors. Recently, momentum around the topic has accelerated, he said. More federal grant money is available, and in January 2021 the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission hosted a planning meeting focused on Minnesota’s hydrogen economy. Now is the time to get serious about participating, Stanislawski said.   

“Through a collaborative effort, we are trying to find a significant role for ag to play as this effort takes off in the next few years,” Stanislawski said. “Opportunities are across the board in anaerobic digestion, conversion of biomass to useful fuels and many other areas. But for us, it is imperative to have a seat at the table in these discussions. We have taken some very good first steps already.”

Researching Renewable Energy

Mike Reese is a member of the working group and the director of renewable energy at the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, Minn. About two decades ago, he worked to secure funding to install a wind turbine at the research center. The station supplies power to farmers and residents of the local communities. 

Recently, Reese began to explore opportunities to use the power station in the hydrogen field. In 2013 his group received funding to open the first pilot plant in the world that converts wind energy into anhydrous ammonia that is then separated and turned into fertilizer. The group is now exploring further uses for ammonia in energy storage to produce electricity and fuel for transportation. 

“At some point, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture will become market driven,” said Reese. “Hydrogen and green ammonia provide the clearest path forward to do so than any technology we have right now. Plus, it has uses in industrial applications, chemical industries and even cosmetics. There is more investment in this area right now than at any time since I started working in this industry. And the University of Minnesota is a global leader in this research. We want the benefits of the work that we have been doing to positively impact our home state.”

Reese envisions a regional power plant that could one day be used to make fertilizer in the spring when farmers need it for planting, and energy generation in the summer when there is high demand on the system. 

“My hope is that one day we could have something like the ethanol industry for hydrogen and ammonia. Farmers and other partners join together to produce green ammonia locally, with local ownership and local job creation,” he said. “We have validated that this can work on a smaller scale, but it is not economical yet. To scale these technologies up, we need to invest funding in the technology.” 

Minnesota’s Utility Companies

CenterPoint Energy plans to be one of the first gas utilities to blend renewable hydrogen into its natural gas supply later this year. There are plans for two more hydrogen blending projects that have been submitted to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission for consideration. 

CenterPoint Energy and all Minnesota utility companies are guided by two mandates. To deliver energy in a cost-effective and reliable manner to customers, and to embrace conservation and renewable energy technology.

Erica Larson, a regulatory analyst for CenterPoint Energy, said that hydrogen presents an exciting opportunity to achieve both goals. The renewable hydrogen blending project will be able to produce enough energy for about 140 homes annually and avoid 1,200 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

“Hydrogen is a safe and versatile energy source, but the whole industry is just now getting started on discovering all the possible uses,” said Larson. “We are committed to a cleaner energy future by reducing carbon emissions. There is so much potential for hydrogen to play a key role in that process. Through projects like our pilot, we will be able to test, learn and gain valuable experience.”

Ammonia as Fuel

Another exciting area for future development of ammonia is transportation fuel. Will Northrop, a professor of mechanical engineering and the director of the University of Minnesota’s Thomas E. Murphy Engine Laboratory, recently designed a tractor that runs on a blend of diesel fuel and ammonia. The project was funded by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, a committee of legislators and citizens that makes funding recommendations on projects that benefit Minnesota’s environment and natural resources.

Northrop said the combustion system his team designed can replace half the diesel fuel that is needed to power a tractor. The Fuel Cell Hydrogen & Energy Association says that hydrogen could meet 14 percent of the country’s energy demand by 2050, the largest share would be in transportation.

Northrop’s laboratory is a leader in ammonia combustion in the U.S., and the project is part of his group’s work to reduce the carbon footprint in agriculture. 

“Renewable ammonia has the potential to significantly reduce the carbon footprint in ag. It has a significant benefit over a carbon-based fuel system, plus we are storing so much of it already,” he said. “But these concepts require research to make them practical and feasible. Through a more collaborative approach, I hope we can establish a community in this critical area. By putting together the right people already working on the different applications, we can make the necessary connections to advance this work.” 

“There are significant implications for our ag commodities and growers as the hydrogen economy continues to grow and gain traction. It is too big of an opportunity for us to ignore,” said Rod Larkins. “Creating significant economic opportunity, capital investment and new jobs will take root and the question is how does our region capitalize on this movement? The answer, we think, is by taking a collaborative approach and working with public utilities, private businesses, universities, producer groups, policymakers and financial providers.”