Can fertilizer fuel greener tractors?

An experimental tractor designed to run on diesel fuel and ammonia.
An experimental tractor designed to run on diesel fuel and ammonia is field tested on June 4, 2019, near Morris, Minn.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

A John Deere 6400 tractor rumbled through a University of Minnesota Morris research field earlier this month pulling a chisel plow and making some history.

Nearly everything about this tractor is a common sight here in west-central Minnesota. But this particular farm country workhorse is one of a kind: It has a white tank mounted on the front labeled "anhydrous ammonia," and extra pipes and control boxes attached to its engine.

It's that white tank that makes this tractor stand out: Normally, tractors pull anhydrous ammonia tanks. It's a commonly used nitrogen fertilizer that's injected into the soil.

But on this tractor, the fertilizer has become the fuel. It's running on a blend of 70 percent diesel and 30 percent ammonia — and researchers hope this carbon-cutting technology will eventually become a cost-effective option for farmers. It's part of a larger effort by U of M researchers to reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture.

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"It's amazing to see it working. I'm excited to continue doing some of this research and refining this system," said Will Northrop, director of the U of M's Thomas E. Murphy Engine Laboratory in Minneapolis.

Northrop has spent months working on this technology in the lab, but on that field in Morris, he watched the modified diesel tractor at work for the first time. He and his colleagues are confident the system will eventually be able to replace at least half of the diesel fuel that typically powers a tractor, cutting back on the harmful greenhouse gas emissions that have long been a byproduct of agricultural production.

"Essentially, you're cutting 50 percent of the carbon emissions from the engine, so that's really a huge advantage," said Northrop. "It's something that you can't really do with any other technology like engine efficiency improvements or other interventions."

Joel Tallaksen and Will Northrop.
West Central Research Center scientist Joel Tallaksen and University of Minnesota Thomas E. Murphy Engine Laboratory director Will Northrop stand next to an experimental ammonia fueled tractor in Morris.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Northrup had the idea to use ammonia as fuel for years, but wasn't able to test the concept until he was able to secure funding a couple of years ago by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, a committee of legislators and citizens that makes funding recommendations to state lawmakers on projects that benefit Minnesota's environment and natural resources.

The ammonia-fueled tractor is one piece of a larger research project at the university that's trying to reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture by making the ubiquitous ammonia fertilizer using wind energy. Most ammonia is now manufactured using natural gas, which can create the high temperatures needed to trigger the chemical reaction that results in ammonia. But natural gas is a fossil fuel, and burning it generates significant greenhouse gas emissions.

For about a decade, researchers in Morris have been developing a process to make ammonia with wind power, a process with almost no greenhouse gas emissions. They think it's realistic to envision a series of regional, wind-powered ammonia production facilities in farm country.

The infrastructure to move and store ammonia is already in place. While ammonia doesn't burn well, farmers are used to handling it. So, the challenge was to design a system to turn the ammonia into a more efficient fuel.

Northrop and graduate student Seamus Kane developed a catalytic converter that uses the heat generated by the running engine to kick-start the chemical process that converts ammonia to hydrogen, a fuel that burns efficiently but is difficult to store and transport.

That efficient fuel conversion using waste engine heat is the breakthrough technology that makes it all work. In theory, ammonia could replace 90 percent of the diesel fuel that's typically used to run a tractor, but that might not be practical without emitting some ammonia in the exhaust, and since ammonia is toxic, safety is a primary concern.

"We need to be able to have a catalyst system that's efficient enough to turn the ammonia back into hydrogen so that we can burn all the ammonia and get all of that fuel energy out of it before it reaches the exhaust," said Kane.

The ammonia system works most efficiently when the engine is working hard, generating a lot of heat and efficiently turning ammonia to hydrogen. Northrop says engines running for hours in the lab on ammonia fuel showed no signs of unusual wear or loss of power.

Seamus Kane explains the experimental ammonia fuel system.
University of Minnesota graduate student Seamus Kane explains the experimental ammonia fuel system he helped design.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Scaling up, from the turbine to the field

The wind-to-ammonia system in Morris has yet to be scaled up to a size that could provide regional distribution of ammonia. A tractor engine modified to burn ammonia could use the fertilizer that farmers are already using on their fields and may already have in storage tanks, but the ultimate goal is using a wind-produced ammonia fuel.

"The benefits that we have are essentially that we can replace diesel fuel, which is a carbon-containing fuel, with the renewable fuel that doesn't have any carbon emissions," said Northrop.

The tractor would still have emissions from the diesel portion of the fuel mix, but the reduction would be significant.

"In the future, we're going to have to ask a lot of questions about technologies like this. I think this is a very good fit because we need ammonia already as a fertilizer and so, adding it to tractor engine operation is not that big a deal for farms that already use it," said Joel Tallaksen, a research scientist at the U of M West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris.

"Even though it doesn't replace 100 percent of our diesel fuel, it really starts to make an impact," Tallaksen said. "And that's what we want to see."

The wind-to-ammonia system in Morris is still small-scale. But Tallaksen is confident it can be scaled up.

An ammonia-fueled tractor is tested under load.
An ammonia-fueled tractor is tested under load during a demonstration at the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Most anhydrous ammonia now comes from a few large manufacturing facilities, but Tallaksen thinks regional ammonia production facilities could be built using some of the wind power capacity that already exists in places like western Minnesota. Sometimes, large wind turbine farms create more electricity than can be carried by existing power lines, he said.

"Where there's not enough capacity on the transmission lines to move energy from place to place, if you could put facilities like this, they would be able to use that energy," he explained.

An experimental tractor designed to use ammonia as fuel.
An experimental tractor designed to use ammonia as fuel sits below a wind turbine that provides electricity to make the ammonia at the University of Minnesota West Central Research Center.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

The challenge of any new technology is making the leap from experimental to everyday use.

Northrop said developing the ammonia engine and making it efficient was a challenge, but it's a relatively simple system to install on a diesel engine, and one major farm equipment manufacturer has already expressed interest in the new ammonia engine technology.

"I think we're well along the path to commercialization of the system," he said. I think that within a year so, we could have a commercial system on the market if there was a good opportunity to sell it."

And if Northrop is right, that tractor with the white tank on the front will no longer be a curiosity.