Farmers making fertilizer: an update on FuelPositive technology

Tracy and Curtis Hiebert, farmers based in Manitoba, Canada, were the first demonstration project partners of FuelPositive. - Photos: FuelPositive
Tracy and Curtis Hiebert, farmers based in Manitoba, Canada, were the first demonstration project partners of FuelPositive. - Photos: FuelPositive

Canadian technology enables crop farmers to manufacture their own fertilizer from air and water, with renewable energy where possible.

Fertilizer is the largest input cost for crop farmers and it’s expensive, as anyone in agriculture is well aware. That’s why we can characterize the interest of crop farmers in making it themselves, on their own farms, as quite extreme.

Ontario-based startup FuelPositive (FP) has designed a scalable, containerized system that only requires air, water and electricity to produce pure/anhydrous ammonia (NH3). If the electricity is generated from renewable sources, the process has very little environmental impact (with the resulting ammonia known as ‘green’ ammonia).

And, as Future Farming reported in 2023, the ammonia can also fuel internal combustion engines on the farm and power grain drying systems instead of propane. It can also be used for heating/cooling (ammonia is commonly used as a refrigerant), water purification and water system sanitizing.

Control and stability

Ian Clifford, CEO of FuelPositive.
Ian Clifford, CEO of FuelPositive.

FP CEO Ian Clifford has noted that giving crop producers control over producing a key input like nitrogen fertilizer represents a dramatic shift towards more control over their farm businesses. This concept enables them to avoid a lot of volatility, in the form of wait times for anhydrous ammonia and the huge price increases that have plagued agriculture over the last few years.

In 2022, FP announced a full-sized demonstration project would be built on a farm in Manitoba, powered by Manitoba’s carbon-free electricity grid and the in combination with farmers’ 200-kw solar array. “We‘re now set to deliver this first commercial demonstration system on Heibert’s 11,000-acre grain farm near Sperling, Manitoba by March 31,” says Clifford. “Thanks to a CAD $ 300,000 provincial grant, the project is well-supported and on track. Stay tuned for the upcoming milestone!”

Global interest surged

Meanwhile, Clifford reports that global interest has surged over the last year, surpassing 600 inquiries. While these inquiries mostly focus on on-farm fertilizer applications, Clifford reports that using ammonia in place of fuel has also captured considerable attention.

“We‘ve signaled our readiness to accept 30% deposits for our FP300-100 tonne FP1500-500 tonne-per-year systems, and ongoing negotiations are underway,” Clifford shares.

“Our primary focus is on Manitoba, where several favourable factors align, such as a green grid, cost-effective electricity, high demand for anhydrous and aqueous ammonia, fuel switching opportunities for fossil fuel grain drying, support from both provincial and federal governments, and robust academic backing, among other considerations.”

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Meanwhile, the company has continued diligent testing and validation of gas composition and purity (H, N and their combining in NH3) using mass spectrometry. Clifford explains that the purity of the hydrogen is key to the system, a factor that has the greatest impact on the performance of the overall technology and directly corresponding to the rate of ammonia production. This is the most-costly part of the system in both capital and operational senses.

FP has had independent validation of all system aspects, including the separation rate of water to hydrogen, as well as the process control parameters (pressure and temperature), the ammonia conversion rate and the nitrogen system. FP acquired the technology from Prof. Ibrahim Dincer at Ontario Tech University, whom Clifford has described as “a preeminent scientist” in the green hydrogen and green ammonia space.

“The current focus involves fine-tuning the system for optimal efficiency,” says Clifford. “The next steps include Factory Acceptance Testing conducted by the Heibert’s, culminating in the system’s delivery and commissioning on their farm.”

International standard

FuelPositive also is working on the development of an international standard of accreditation and guidelines for using ‘green’ ammonia.

“This pertains to carbon credit accreditations and associated program recognition,” says Clifford. “These efforts are underway and progressing positively, with a particular emphasis on Manitoba to ensure timely generation and monetization of credits once the system is operational.”

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FuelPositive's system to make green ammonia to be used as fertiliser on-farm fits in 3 standard 20-foot shipping containers.
FuelPositive's system to make green ammonia to be used as fertiliser on-farm fits in 3 standard 20-foot shipping containers.

Ammonia’s environmental impact

Across the world each year, over 200 million tonnes of traditional (‘grey’) ammonia is manufactured and used. It is the second most-produced chemical globally (after sulfuric acid) and about 80% is used as fertilizer.

It’s an energy-intensive process. The production of grey ammonia generates over 420 million tons of CO2 each year and for every metric tonne manufactured, almost three metric tonnes of GHGs are emitted.

The production of a tonne of ‘green’ ammonia using carbon-free electricity in a FP system therefore directly offsets these emissions.

No ammonia travels

There’s another impact environmental factor as well. On-farm production means that the vast distances grey ammonia travels to farms (there are only a small number of ammonia refineries across the globe) is cut to nothing.

In addition, green ammonia is injected deeply into the soil, it provides the most efficient transfer of nitrogen to plants (very close to roots) and with very little nitrous oxide emissions compared to other nitrogen fertilizers and fertilizer application options.

In 2022, FP announced that Prof. Mario Tenuta at the University of Manitoba would serve as the company’s agricultural GHG mitigation advisor. Tenuta is the senior national ‘Industrial Research Chair’ in 4R Nutrient Stewardship, a global initiative that strives to help farmers apply the ‘Right’ type of fertilizer in the Right way, Right place and Right time (4 Rs).

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Two Electrolyser stacks in the Electrolyser unit.
Two Electrolyser stacks in the Electrolyser unit.

‘Significant disruptive impact’

Clifford reports the company is fully immersed in meeting the demands of the agriculture sector for green ammonia, but the FP team is also fielding inquiries from global markets beyond agriculture.

“To handle this, we‘re devising a phased rollout strategy, sector by sector, aiming to eventually cater to various domains related to green ammonia,” he says.

In late January 2024, FP had a noteworthy visit from Lawrence MacAulay, Canada’s federal Minister of Agriculture who is also a potato farmer from the province of Prince Edward Island.

“He expressed deep admiration for our technology and business model,” says Clifford, “highlighting their significant disruptive impact. His enthusiasm for the imminent on-farm debut of the full system was palpable.”

Treena Hein Correspondent for Canada