UNIVERSITY RESEARCHERS are harnessing the power of wind to generate electricity, which may contribute to moderate-priced anhydrous ammonia fertilizer for U.S. farmers.

A pilot project, five years in the making, is finally under way at the University of Minnesota, according to Mike Reese, the renewable energy director at the UM west-central research and outreach center. “The project entails using wind power to drive a water electrolysis system to produce hydrogen and an air separations unit to pull nitrogen from air,” Reese says. “The hydrogen and nitrogen are then combined in an advanced catalytic reactor, also developed at the university, to produce ammonia.” Ultimately, he adds, “we believe that producing anhydrous ammonia from electrical means will be cheaper than using natural gas to produce it.”

The wind-based technology could drastically reduce the dependence the U.S. has on fertilizer made from natural gas imported from China, India and Russia, which combined accounts for about 50% of the natural gas produced worldwide.

In the process, the U.S. may be better able to minimize the wild price swings in anhydrous ammonia fertilizer that farmers have experienced the past two years. In early February of this year, anhydrous ammonia fertilizer costs were running roughly $500/ton. But two years ago, the costs were about $1,300/ton.

According to the UM Web site, “Initial estimates imply that switching to this method of production would utilize over 2 gigawatts of wind power statewide and would keep $300 million within the state of Minnesota.”

Ammonia production may open a market for “stranded wind” energy, which is potential wind energy that is not developed because it is not near an urban or industrial center. Freedom Fertilizer, based in northwest Iowa, is working with stranded wind with the intent of producing cost-effective ammonia. Steve Gruhn, Freedom Fertilizer business owner and developer, says, “This approach will help provide energy and cost independence for Iowa communities who have had no choice recently but to buy expensive imported ammonia produced with natural gas.” However, the current transmission infrastructure is insufficient to move wind power to urban areas and will need to be developed.

Reese says the Minnesota project, funded by the state and the University of Minnesota, will be fully operational by December.