Last week’s announcement of a proposed $1.2 billion fertilizer manufacturing plant in Spiritwood, N.D., begs the question of how exactly the plant will operate once construction is expected to be completed in 2016.
The proposed Spiritwood Nitrogen Project by CHS Inc. — expected to be completed by the second half of 2016 — would produce 2,200 tons of ammonia daily and supply anhydrous ammonia and other fertilizers to farm supply retailers and farmers in the Dakotas, as well as parts of Minnesota, Montana and Canada. Anhydrous ammonia, when applied to soil, helps provide increased yields of crops such as corn and wheat.
According to Dan Mack, vice president of transportation and terminal operations with Inner Grove Heights, Minn.-based CHS, that would be a significant amount of ammonia supply being transported via road or rail car.
“We’re actually looking at metric tons when you look at that 2,200 number, so about 90 semitrailers or 25 to 30 rail cars per day,” he said.
There are 2,204 pounds in one metric ton.
Why ammonia matters
Ammonia is a biologically active form of nitrogen that can be used as fertilizer, whereas most nitrogen in the atmosphere is not biologically active, according to David Roberts, assistant professor of agribusiness and applied economics at North Dakota State University.
Nitrogen is the single biggest fertilizer ingredient used in North Dakota and in most surrounding areas, said Dwight Aakre, farm management specialist with the NDSU Extension Service.
Aakre said nitrogen usage has been climbing recently in the state as well.
“One of the major reasons for that is the increase of corn acres,” he said. “We’ve seen an increase in corn acres the last few years, and corn — on a per-acre basis — is the biggest nitrogen user of the crops we produce here,” he said.
Wheat is the largest overall nitrogen user in the state, Aakre said.
Anhydrous ammonia is pure ammonia with no water in it, while ammonia used for household cleaning is diluted until it is mostly water.
How to make ammonia
Officials at last week’s press conference in Bismarck who announced the proposal said the Spiritwood site was ideal because it would be able to take advantage of the abundance of natural gas production in the state related to oil production in western North Dakota.
Mack said one of the key sources of the natural gas that will be used to create ammonia — and thus, fertilizer at the plant — is the Bakken formation in the Oil Patch.
“That gas is then transported by pipeline to the Spiritwood location,” he said.
The structure for such a pipeline is currently in place to an extent, Mack said, with the Spiritwood site expected to have access to the Williston Basin Inc., pipeline that runs parallel to the Interstate 94 corridor.
Determining pipeline usage and deciding if more pipeline capacity will be necessary is still under development.
“It’s early in the process and we continue to work on what will be required. But it’s worthy to note that additional pipeline capacity will likely be needed,” Mack said.
Mack detailed how the process works in terms of producing ammonia from the natural gas.
“Simply stated, the process begins with the natural gas feed stock, methane, being heated to both remove impurities as well as for the conversion to a concentrated form of hydrogen. Air is then introduced to the hydrogen so as to incorporate nitrogen. The hydrogen/nitrogen mixture is then run through a series of processes and a catalyst is introduced,” Mack said in an email to The Sun.
A catalyst is a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction without being consumed in the reaction.
“The resulting gases are then cooled to create ammonia. The process is more complex than stated above, but that is generally what happens,” he said.
Anhydrous ammonia is then used as nitrogen fertilizer or can be further processed into urea and UAN liquid fertilizer to be supplied to farm supply retailers in addition to farmers themselves.
The next steps
Prior to moving forward, CHS will be investing $10 million into what it’s calling a feasibility phase, which will include a front-end engineering and design study.
CHS President/CEO Carl Casale said Wednesday the study would likely take several months.
Once the site is up and running, it is expected to have 100 to 150 full-time employees, which Mack said would range in terms of necessary skills and wages.
“We liken it to the skill set that exists in an oil refinery or an electrical plant — a wide variety of skills sets but certainly an attractive opportunity for full-time employment,” he said. “From plant operators to safety and maintenance technicians, management staff to facility and operations management, engineers to employees doing product handling and loading — certainly a variation of skills.”
A press release the company issued on Sept. 12 indicated that “necessary internal and external approvals” would be required prior to moving forward with construction of the Spiritwood Nitrogen Project.
Mack shed light on the specifics of such approvals.
“‘Internal’ refers primarily to financial. What the process will give us is a high predictable level of cost to construct the facility. Based on that cost, we’ll make the final financial decisions in terms of moving forward,” he said. “External refers to permits and other things required to drive the project forward, like the ability to get utilities and such to the site.”
In terms of energy use at the site, the proposed plant requires what Mack called “a significant amount of natural gas,” at 75 billion to 80 billion BTUs per day.
“It’s difficult to make a comparison or quantify exactly how much that is, but I can say it’s the primary input for this production facility and it will be a significant consumer of natural gas,” Mack said.
In addition, the company release states that it will use 15 to 20 megawatts of electricity, for which Mack said the company’s intent is to work toward negotiating an electrical use agreement with Great River Energy.
GRE is an electric transmission and generation cooperative headquartered out of Maple Grove, Minn., that already has its Spiritwood Station coal-fired generating plant located near where the fertilizer plant is proposed to be built in the Spiritwood Energy Park Association industrial park. Spiritwood Station’s generating capacity is 99 megawatts, according to Lyndon Anderson, GRE’s North Dakota communications supervisor.
“We will not be seeking any steam, however. The process itself produces its own steam. There will be boilers in the facility and steam will be used, but the intent is not to use any additional steam,” Mack said.