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A National Renewable Ammonia Architecture

by SacredCowTipper Mon Dec 22nd, 2008 at 08:21:14 PM EST

  I've been laying low for the last little bit but I swear I haven't been slacking - I cranked out a 2,500 word white paper describing a National Renewable Ammonia Architecture. This is also making an appearance over on The Oil Drum and it's drawing a good bit of discussion there, too.

A National Renewable Ammonia Architecture

    This paper describes the current manufacture and uses of ammonia as well as describing a path forward to a fully renewable future for this vital fertilizer ingredient. The primary author and editor is Neal Rauhauser, known on TOD SacredCowTipper, with assistance in its development rendered by Dave Bradley, known as nb41, Bryan Lutter, known as CropDuster, Dr. John Holbrook, and Larry Bruce.

Ammonia Production Methods Today

    It can be argued that ammonia is perhaps the most critical manmade substance to the existence of human society.  Without continuing agricultural growth, the world's expanding population faces famine and the concomitant breakdown of civil society.  The expansion of population and modern society is based on fertilizer driven agriculture...and modern nitrogen fertilizer is ammonia.  Traditional agricultural strategies of slash and burn, fallow fields and crop rotation were gradually replaced in the 19th century by fertilizer from the mining of nitrates and harvesting of guano deposits.  At the dawn of the 20th century, the end was in sight for Chilean nitrate deposits and there was growing concern that a worldwide famine would ensue. The discovery of ammonia synthesis by Fritz Haber and subsequent commercialization by Carl Bosch in 1910 freed the human race of the need to worry about a source of nitrogen fertilizer for a century.

   The Haber Bosch process requires only pure nitrogen, pure hydrogen, and a high pressure reactor with a catalyst in order to produce ammonia. The nitrogen is free for the taking from the air but hydrogen, no matter what method we use to obtain it, involves the use of energy. The primary sources for the hydrogen used in ammonia manufacture today are natural gas and coal.  There are an increasing number of petroleum coke projects in development, and a handful of remaining hydroelectric facilities built forty to sixty years ago.

   Natural gas is the cleanest high volume production method used today, generating only about two tons of carbon dioxide for every ton of ammonia produced. Natural gas resources are being depleted just as oil has been The year 2007 saw the closure of the Agrium facility in Kenai, Alaska due to natural gas depletion, the impending conversion of Rentech's East Dubuque facility to coal from natural gas, and the Farmland Chemicals plant from Lawrence, Kansas resuming operation after being dismantled and reconstructed in its new location in natural gas rich Oman.

     Natural gas supplies are certain to decline in the long term...and in the short term the price will be unpredictable. Coal is plentiful, petroleum coke is also readily available, but the carbon in these fuels is used in a gasification process to strip hydrogen from water will result in a tremendous expansion of CO2 emissions.  Coal based production emits about four tons of carbon dioxide per ton of ammonia and petroleum coke produces a bit more than that. All planned new production both domestically and globally seems to be coal gasification based. Carbon dioxide figures are uncertain as plant efficiency can have significant (25% or more) influence on overall output, but they are a good first approximation for estimates of national or global scope.

Global Ammonia Production Emissions

    Global ammonia production is about 69% natural gas and 29% coal. One petroleum coke system is in operation today and three legacy hydroelectric facilities nearing end of life contribute about 1.5% of the total global production of 131 million tons.

    The 90 million tons of ammonia produced annually with natural gas release 180 million tons of carbon dioxide. The 38 million tons of ammonia produced with coal released an estimated 152 million tons of carbon dioxide. The total 332 million tons of emissions are 7.3 % of the estimated 4,500 million tons of worldwide emissions of CO2.  

    Given that natural gas supplies are fragmented and depleting quickly it is reasonable to assume that existing natural gas based ammonia plants could be converted to coal gasification in an emergency. Should this happen ammonia related carbon dioxide emissions would climb to 524 million tons which would equal 11.6% of the 4,500 million tons humans already add to the atmosphere.

Ammonia In Domestic Agriculture

    Fully half of all human protein comes from man made ammonia. Plants require nitrogen to produce protein and ammonia is the only viable source for large scale nitrogren applications. The United States uses about 18.5 million tons of ammonia annually from the global production of 131 million tons. 90% of this is used in agriculture. Over the last forty four years of statistics corn has averaged nearly 44% of the total, wheat almost 14%, and the remaining 42% of agricultural use is spread among all other crops.

   American farmers planted 86 million acres of corn and 65 million acres of wheat in 2008.Corn fertilization averaged 170 pounds of ammonia per acre and wheat received 72 pounds per acre. Yields averaged 154 bushels per acre for corn and 36 bushels per acre for wheat.

  Fertilization rates are given in ammonia equivalents. Depending on the crop, producer preference and availability, ammonia can be applied in various compounds.  Actual usage by volume of nitrogen was anhydrous ammonia (59%), urea (27%), a mixture of urea and ammonium nitrate known as UAN (9%), and the remainder were various specialty forms of fixed nitrogen such as ammonium phosphate compounds.

   Properly fertilized wheat will yield fifty to sixty bushels an acre while alternating fallow cultivation methods will struggle to produce just a little more than half that amount. Protein content is also a concern - hard red spring wheat will have up to 17% protein when fertilized and as little as 9% if not. Many farmers didn't fertilize in the fall of 2008 due to the difference between grain price and ammonia price which may mean a 50% reduction in total yield and a a 40% reduction in protein in what is harvested. If this has happened to farmers in all of the large wheat exporting nations, and we believe it has, it's a recipe for collapsing governments all over the developing world.

   The corn crop is raised primarily for its starch content and protein is not closely tracked. A sudden reduction in ammonia based fertilizer input here will have the same yield effect as is seen with wheat - a sudden plunge to about half of the current average.

Domestic Ammonia Production Facilities

   These 29 locations are ammonia plants either operating or, in the case of the recently idled Agrium Kenai facility, in good enough condition to be returned to service. Many of these plants are not purely ammonia production but instead operate in conjunction with follow on fertilizer manufacturing or are involved in the production of derivative industrial products such as nitric acid. All capacity figures are in thousands of tons of ammonia per year.

Owner Location Capacity
Agrium Borger-TX 490
Agrium Kenai-AK 280
Agrium Kennewick-WA 545
CF Industries Donaldsonville-LA 2040
Coffeyville Resources Coffeyville-KS 375
Dakota Gasification Beulah-ND 363
Dyno Nobel Cheyenne-WY 174
Dyno Nobel St. Helens-OR 101
Green Valley Creston-IA 32
Honeywell International Hopewell-VA 530
Koch Nitrogen Beatrice-NE 265
Koch Nitrogen Dodge City-KS 280
Koch Nitrogen Enid-OK 930
Koch Nitrogen Fort Dodge-IA 350
Koch Nitrogen Sterlington-LA 1110
LSB Industries Cherokee-AL 159
LSB Industries Pryor-OK 300
Mosaic Company Donaldsonville-LA 508
PCS Nitrogen Augusta-GA 688
PCS Nitrogen Geismar-LA 483
PCS Nitrogen Lima-OH 542
PCS Nitrogen Memphis-TN 371
Rentech Energy East Dubuque-IA 278
Terra Industries Beaumont-TX 231
Terra Industries Donaldsonville-LA 360
Terra Industries Port Neal-IA 336
Terra Industries Verdigris-OK 953
Terra Industries Woodward-OK 399
Terra Industries Yazoo City-MS 454
Total 13945

U.S. Ammonia Facilities Excluding Alaska

   This is a link to the Google Earth file that was used to produce the map image you see. Clicking individual site markers will lead to the given company's web page associated with the site, should I have been able to locate one. Koch and Terra are particularly forthcoming regarding what their plants actually produce.

Domestic Ammonia Economics

   Domestic ammonia production was 10.7 million tons in 2007 and the USGS states that plants were running at 84% capacity,  I list the Agrium Kennewick facility which is easily locatable both via Google Earth and web searches but it did not make the USGS plant list for that year. Capacity and production figures are not exact and I attribute this to overall market instability - plants were on and off based on commodity prices.

   2007 imported ammonia  totaled 7.9 million tons. Major suppliers were Trinidad (55%), Russia (21%), and Canada (12%). The price at port is stated to be $339/ton indicating a transfer of $2.7 billion overseas. 2008 prices were dramatically higher and wealth transfer was perhaps double this amount.

   Trinidad, supplier of over half of our total imports, had reserves of 30.7 trillion cubic feet (~17 Tcf proven, 7.8 Tcf probable, 5.9 Tcf possible) of natural gas in 2004 and usage was just under a trillion cubic feet a year. Many additional industrial plants meant to use the inexpensive gas and labor in this Caribbean country were planned to come online between 2008 and 2010. A 2004 IMF study indicates that Trinidad would exhaust its reserves within ten years of these plants becoming active. The global economic recession should slow domestic industrial consumption but liquid natural gas exports will ensure an ongoing drawdown of reserves. Russian exports are subject to rising geopolitical tensions. TOD contributor Jon Freise has published a report indicating that Canadian natural gas is on a path to negative EROI within the next six years.

    The three largest ammonia import sources are all under different stresses and will all fail within at most a decade, cutting the United States off from 88% of current imports. This alone will amount to a reduction in ammonia supplies in the continental United States of about 36%. Domestic natural gas fueled manufacturers face similar issues.

National Ammonia Independence

   The United States can and must achieve national ammonia independence by a mix of refurbishing existing plants and construction of new renewable production facilities.

    Existing facilities could produce about 14 million tons of ammonia annually and would require 2.5 million tons of hydrogen to do this. This hydrogen, current produced from a mix of natural gas and coal gasification could be replaced with electrolytically produced hydrogen.

    Using current electrolyzers 6,300 two megawatt units would be required and assuming 8,760 hours of operation annually 12,500 megawatts of continuous power would be needed to fully replace hydrogen derived from fossil fuels. A scheme to buffer renewably produced hydrogen output would enhance the flexibility of such a configuration but at this time the best buffer seems to be just getting on with the process of making ammonia. Even so, the Louisiana ammonia plants may have access to nearby salt domes which would allow the creation of solution mined caverns capable of storing large volumes of hydrogen, a configuration that would naturally complement the large amount of wind resources available on the Texas plains.

    Imports total 7.9 million tons. Based on business planning done by Third Mode Energy we calculate that this volume of production could be covered by 7,900 megawatts of continuous power and a $25 billion investment in Haber Bosch style plants. Assuming $0.04/kwh electricity resulting in an annual cost of $2.8 billion the physical plant costs could be recouped in ten to fifteen years given the ammonia pricing we saw in 2008. Hydroelectric or nuclear are the only clean power sources steady enough to drive this process today. We believe there is a simple route to a system that would work with a hybrid wind and base load power source but this likely uneconomical; why would anyone build a wind driven plant to run 85% of the time and only achieve 40% of capacity when the same equipment could be installed near a hydroelectric facility and produce 100% of the time?

     Immediate construction of renewable ammonia facilities based on the very well known Haber Bosch process should begin at once but funds must be directed to promising new synthesis methods as well. Solid state ammonia synthesis (SSAS) promises capital costs that are half of the Haber Bosch systems, power costs that are perhaps 25% less, and the ability to build plants a tiny fraction of the size of a Haber Bosch plant, making it suitable for use with power sources as small and as variable as a single utility scale wind turbine.

Renewable Electric Sources

Ammonia can be produced by a completely carbon free process that releases no greenhouse gases.  What is needed is renewably generated electricity at a relatively low cost, air and water.

Hydroelectric power for ammonia.  

       The United States Department of the Interior maintains a national inventory of dams - a database of over 8,800 locations in the United States with information regarding their purpose. This map and associated Google Earth file show 352 locations with either an impoundment in excess of eight square miles or a run of river installation.  There is a negative correlation between good cropland and the elevation changes needed for good hydroelectric power. Hydroelectric power in the $0.02/kwh to $0.04/kwh range will yield ammonia in the $350 to $500/ton range.

Run Of River Or Impoundments Greater Than 5,120 Acres

 Wind power for ammonia.

      There is excellent correlation between national wind resources and the wheat growing states of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Kansas. The corn growing states of Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota have good wind resources in their own right and usable rail links to the wind rich Dakotas. Assuming the wind intermittency problem can be remedied, either by the mastery of the solid state ammonia synthesis process or the creation of a grid footprint large enough to ensure continuous production, a wind energy based ammonia production industry can be envisioned. 7,900 2.5 megawatt turbines each with a 40% capacity factor would produce the electricity needed to cover the anticipated import deficit.

National Wind Energy Map

Solar power for ammonia.

  Solar PV costs are too high for ammonia production based on current technology, but solar ammonia has potential.. A clever concentrated solar storage process using ammonia is in the pilot phase at the Australian National University but at this time there is no commercially deployable ammonia synthesis solution tuned for the sunny, relatively windless American southwest. A concentrated effort to develop such a thing would permit ammonia manufacture in that region, creating a domestic bilateral energy/food circuit in place of a similar trade arrangement with less friendly parts of the world.

National Solar Energy Map


    This is a late draft of this white paper and it has been written in an attempt to provide a rigorous reference of manageable size for those working on renewable ammonia outreach and lobbying. I'm offering it here in hopes it'll get a thorough going over by the community before I have to start showing it to decision makers.

Excellent review. I would put a simpler summary at the top, to draw readers in, that states the critical problem succinctly and that a solution is to be described below.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Tue Dec 23rd, 2008 at 04:58:25 AM EST
In Safari there is a large missing section between 'domestic production' and the table of owners...

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Tue Dec 23rd, 2008 at 05:00:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]

 In Firefox there is a large missing section, too. Works fine on DailyKos, doesn't look so good here, on Bleeding Heartland, etc. I dunno what it is ...
by SacredCowTipper (sct@strandedwind.org) on Tue Dec 23rd, 2008 at 05:47:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Is there missing information?

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Tue Dec 23rd, 2008 at 06:15:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]

No, nothing missing, just a break between the table and the preceding text.
by SacredCowTipper (sct@strandedwind.org) on Tue Dec 23rd, 2008 at 09:29:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Then, presumably, you have some stray html in there....

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Tue Dec 23rd, 2008 at 09:39:31 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Delete the carriage returns in the table, so its a solid block of html ... its just a bug in Scoop when bullet point lists and auto-formatting of hard returns interact.

Here, where the html is stored rather than the original diary source, just look for the string of <br> that were generated by mistake, and delete them.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Dec 23rd, 2008 at 05:16:19 PM EST
[ Parent ]
by borkitekt on Tue Dec 23rd, 2008 at 07:20:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Hey! Just what several of us said at Agent Orange.

If the argument (and even if it is presented as a report, it is in reality an argument) can be boiled down to three main points, those can be presented in a single coherent introductory paragraph that can give the reader a mental map. Something along the line of:

"Why the concern with sustainable, renewable ammonia production? __point_1_. _point_2_. _point_3__."

... would be a tremendous help.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Dec 23rd, 2008 at 01:14:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]

 Oh, yes, I am glad for feedback. I'm so deep into this stuff that even when I'm trying to take a step back I assume much context that no one except a corn state agronomist would have.
by SacredCowTipper (sct@strandedwind.org) on Tue Dec 23rd, 2008 at 04:53:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'd be happy to give a rough critique of the text as it stands from the point of view of both as an average joe for whom this stuff is totally new, and as a professional copywriter.

It seems to be something worth the time of cooperating on, to ensure your message gets the best possible chance of changing things.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Tue Dec 23rd, 2008 at 05:00:01 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Could you explain the processes involving hydroelectric and if this has any correlation with hydrolysis?

As you mention in the intro, ammonia is produced with nitrogen and hydrogen found in the earth's atmosphere- therefore going the round about way to sequester and combine the two materials, especially via mining seems to be an incredibly destructive unsustainable process on the earth in and of itself.

So, I had been wondering, if a process of capturing/separating these gasses, such as in an integrated solar pv system that would also utilize the oxygen separated from water...? But, as you say, other inputs for electricity are cheaper at present...

Another idea, you point out urea and within this equation we only look at ammonia as a base for fertalizer- I was wondering what role using composting material, perhaps instituting a national system for recycling  human and food wastes into the agricultural sector- this may be done somewhat now, though can't recall to what extent.


by borkitekt on Tue Dec 23rd, 2008 at 07:35:18 AM EST

  The oxygen is of interest if you want to run a nearby gasifier. The other choices are building in an industrial area where you will find existing air separation plants and thusly no need for more capacity. If you build in a rural area you'll end up with an air separation plant and no customers.

  Ammonia is made first and urea is evolved from it, as are ammonium nitrate and other, less common compounds used for fertilization.

  A national recycling/composting effort would help but this is really a mass balance problem - something like two thirds of all humans alive are here because we learned to synthesize ammonia so if we stop that process not long after we have a disaster.

by SacredCowTipper (sct@strandedwind.org) on Tue Dec 23rd, 2008 at 09:37:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The last part of the last sentence may be provocative, but in the summary of your report it would ensure people read further.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Tue Dec 23rd, 2008 at 05:02:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That graph I mentioned in my other comment would make a good companion to that sentence, used for shock value as Sven suggests.
by Zwackus on Wed Dec 24th, 2008 at 07:12:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Shock can be tricky; it is all too easy to put people off if it feels needy or overstated. Al Gore did shock quite well in Inconvenient Truth.

But we need to get people's attention, and shock can do that. In my experience many potential readers of this kind of stuff really don't quite get the science, so you have to visualize the problem and the solution, if possible in a simple insight.

An example is the 'we can't exploit the resources of more than 1 planet' insight. That is a very simple way of talking about sustainability. Once you have established that thought in people's minds, it is easier to introduce more complex ideas that relate to it.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Wed Dec 24th, 2008 at 07:39:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
on this subject. I'm going to accept your data at face-value for now.

I do have one doubt, however. Some folks show data that indicates that too much fertilizer is used currently. Rising - perhaps dangerous - levels of nitrates in river systems (e.g., the Mississippi River) are well beyond that which can be blamed on (under-regulated) livestock manure concentrations in the river system's upstream watershed. Implication is that fertilizer on grain-growing land is dispensed too liberally.

This behavior would certainly fit the bottom-line model of the large-scale farms for which the question would simply be is the cost of the fertilizer for the number of units used less than the market price of the product given maximized grain yield.

In other words your interest in this subject - and your model(s) - seem to start from the ecological perspective. Is potential over-use of ammonia-based products a part of your analysis?

paul spencer

by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Tue Dec 23rd, 2008 at 09:54:53 PM EST
And on that point, are the current use-patterns for ammonia-based fertilizers driven by sound agronomic research, or by an artificial set of incentives from the government and the big ag corps?

It does seem like something to address.  The more niggling points like this that you can deal with, the better you can play up the doom cards.

by Zwackus on Wed Dec 24th, 2008 at 07:10:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
... sound agronomic research on the most effective cultivation techniques in the context of a system where fertilizer gets a free ride on its external costs downstream in the watershed would not be arriving at the "correct figure" if it is not recommending too much fertilizer use from the perspective of full economic costs.

That is, after all, a direct consequence of taking free rides on external costs and giving free rides on external benefits ... making it rational at the individual level to over-utilize the thing with the net external cost, and to under-utilize the thing with the net external benefit.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Dec 24th, 2008 at 05:13:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]

 Curing overuse is a fine thing and high fertilizer prices drive that. Instead of broadcast application GPS monitoring of both application and yield can be done. Doing it right involves a guy on an ATV with a GPS and some kit doing a field survey first.

 The livestock stuff is a problem but keep in mind human waste is simply dumped in a lot of those municipalities. Spencer, Iowa, population about 9,000 has a direct discharge sewer system. That all reaches the Mississippi along with every other little town in the Midwest that does that ...

by SacredCowTipper (sct@strandedwind.org) on Wed Dec 24th, 2008 at 12:21:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
trying to blame Spencer for the nitrate excess. :>

paul spencer
by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Wed Dec 24th, 2008 at 04:28:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Why is protein content in wheat important?  At what stage in the food chain is a low wheat protein content problematic.  That is, when do people notice?

Also, the pre-nitrogen fertilizer techniques you describe, like fallow fields and whatnot - are those from American farming, or European?  Americans had a pretty awful reputation as soil killers in the nineteenth centuries, and hardly bothered with any techniques to manage the soil or improve yield.  There are some interesting passages from the 1860 census on this matter, basically to the point that it wasn't really worth it for most American farmers to bother with any sort of soil management or preservation because there were too few farmers, too few capital, and too much difficult bringing their products to market for it to be worth the extra investment.

There would be a HUGE difference between reverting to old-style American practice, and to intensive cultivation practices found in 19th century Britain, or for that matter China or Japan.

I'm not saying that intensive organic cultivation is the answer or anything.  I have no clue.  It's just something to address, since you're bringing up pre-nitrogen practice as a major point.

Speaking of that, a graph plotting the introduction of nitrogen fertilizers, guano and whatnot, with crop yield growth and population growth might be interesting.  Probably a ton of work to put together, but interesting nonetheless.

On the subject of old-school fertilizers, I know in Edo-period (1600-1868) Japan they used fish-meal, ground up cold-water fish, as a fertilizer for most commercial agriculture.  The demand for fertilizer was one of the factors that drove the development of the Hokkaido fisheries.

by Zwackus on Wed Dec 24th, 2008 at 07:07:59 AM EST
... where large numbers rely on complementary vegetable proteins for 90% or more of their protein intake. Cut the protein content of wheat, you cut the usable protein content of the complement of vegetable foods.

Rice, however, would have a larger total population relying on it.

The answer in most high income nations is, of course, don't grow so many staple grains, and grow more fruits and vegetable ... we overproduce grain massively in the US, but its not a problem restricted to the US ... both the US and the EU engage in food dumping that destroys local farm incomes in large numbers of low income nations.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Dec 24th, 2008 at 01:12:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
about the types and amounts of N-based fertilizers in Japan?

paul spencer
by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Wed Dec 24th, 2008 at 04:32:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Today?  I believe it's the highest per ton of agricultural product in the world.  A lot of it is sprayed by hand, or by little mini-carts, given the small scale intensive nature of Japanese ag, but they still use a lot.  Lots of pesticides, too.
by Zwackus on Wed Dec 24th, 2008 at 08:37:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]

 I have very little knowledge of Japanese agriculture but I do recall reading that there was some sort of "too much is not enough" when it came to fertilization.

 It is all so big and about to be so out of control due to peak oil ... most days it's enough just trying to take in the situation in the areas I know well.

by SacredCowTipper (sct@strandedwind.org) on Wed Dec 24th, 2008 at 11:19:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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