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WCROC generates anhydrous ammonia at new hydrogen and ammonia pilot plant

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 07/30/2013 10:47 AM

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MORRIS — What started as sketches on a napkin in 2002 is now producing anhydrous ammonia at the West Central Research and Outreach Center.

The Hydrogen and Ammonia Pilot Plant recently was dedicated.

The technology at the core of the plant dates back to World War I, but WCROC's small-scale renewable energy system may be the first of its kind in the world.

Torrey Westrom was a Minnesota House member when he met with Mike Reese, WCROC renewable energy director; Lowell Rasmussen, University of Minnesota-Morris vice chancellor of finance and facilities; and then-WCROC director Greg Cuomo. They asked Westrom to join them to discuss renewable energy projects.

Getting the idea to a functioning system took time, funding and planning.

An opportunity to move the project forward came in 2003 when Xcel Energy sought additional storage for nuclear waste at its Prairie Island facility.

Westrom helped secure $3 million in funding provided by Xcel Energy for renewable energy development. Part of the agreement called for a rural site to be selected for renewable energy demonstration projects.

Most of the center's funding was used to put up the first wind turbine. The turbine was dedicated in 2005, but there was a lack of transmission capacity, and energy production was inconsistent at times.

Researchers viewed the problems as possibilities and looked at hydrogen as a means of energy storage. By using hydrogen, the center also could produce anhydrous ammonia.

Funding for the pilot plant came in 2005 when WCROC received $800,000 through a Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources grant. Westrom helped secure another $2.5 million from the Legislature. Additional funding came from the University of Minnesota, which contributed $450,000 to help reach the $3.75 million needed for the plant.

A design was finalized in December 2009 and construction started in fall 2010. The hydrogen and nitrogen generators were running by fall 2010.

A specially designed pilot scale reactor was needed to work with the two generators to create anhydrous ammonia. Getting it all in place caused a two-year delay.

The reactor arrived in mid-2012 and was hooked up by November. Two months later, the pilot plant produced its first anhydrous ammonia.

A 3,100 gallon anhydrous ammonia tank stands next to the pilot plant. It can be filled to 2,700 gallons and has about 30 to 40 gallons in it at this stage, said Cory Marquardt, a scientist with the WCROC renewable energy program.

WCROC and local cooperatives inked a deal for the co-ops to use the anhydrous ammonia on area farms.

Reese never missed an opportunity to discuss WCROC's renewable energy programs.

"How many times in the past 10 years have you given a power point presentation on this project," joked Al Juhnke, Sen. Franken's agriculture and energy advisor. "This is really cool… And I look forward to the next power point presentation as you look into the future."

Some might have questioned developing a wind-to hydrogen-to ammonia project because an established anhydrous ammonia industry already exists, said Cecil Massie, an engineer who's worked with WCROC on the project. There are greater economic development possibilities for local cooperatives.

Ellen Anderson, a former state senator who is Gov. Mark Dayton's energy advisor, said one-third of energy used in agriculture involves fertilizer.

Reese thanked Jack Gust, of the Toro Corporation, for its donation of two Toro Workman vehicles. The vehicles are powered by hydrogen fuel cells and will be used by crews working at WCROC's horticulture gardens.

The vehicles have found a good home at WCROC, where a hose with a special nozzle is in place at the pilot plant for workers to refuel the Workmans.