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Reducing emissions from fertilizer production

In this blog post, we explore the cost of capturing carbon from fertilizer plants, focusing on the Coffeyville Resources Nitrogen Fertilizers Plant in Kansas, U.S. This facility produces ammonia and urea ammonium nitrate (UAN) fertilizers using conventional natural gas processes, where the input methane reacts with water to produce CO2 and hydrogen. The hydrogen reduces nitrogen to ammonia for fertilizer, and some CO2 is purified to be used to react the ammonia to form urea. The rest of the CO2 is traditionally vented to the environment.

Carbon capture in fertilizer production is relatively straightforward, as it is in ethanol production, because the exhaust is largely CO2. In 2011 this plant reached a purchase and sale agreement for EOR, and the facility was retrofitted in 2013 for capture and transport at a total cost between $50-$80M for . The facility's CO2 capture process began in June 2013, with the majority of the plant's CO2 being captured by Chaparral. They constructed a CO2 compression facility at the plant site and installed a pipeline to transport it to their North Burbank Unit in Osage County, Oklahoma. Data regarding the plant's yearly capture performance remains scarce, making it challenging to assess its efficiency and effectiveness over time, but some research indicates that the Coffeyville plant operates at least at its designed capacity of 900,000 tons/yr, perhaps even exceeding it. Capture from ammonia production is thus one of the cheapest methods of abatement, in part because the base facility already has the capability to purify and re-use CO2 as part of its existing processes.

The alternative to carbon capture from a fertilizer plant is to create hydrogen by electrolysis, and use this as the feedstock for nitrogen reduction. Such a solution is in principle possible, though it still requires the input of CO2 from other sources. The base cost for "blue" hydrogen used in situ in fertilizer production is not a good surrogate for the price of fertilizer, because in this system the hydrogen never has to be stored or transported - it is used at the instant it is created. Overall, I estimate that the price of electricity would have to drop to about 2¢/kWh for green hydrogen from electrolysis to compete with natural gas sources in the US, and that is the baseload cost, not a cost during peak sunshine (you can't operate an ammonia plant just during daylight hours). This is not reasonable for the foreseeable future. The capital investment for carbon capture additions to ammonia manufacture is not really at risk in areas of the world with access to gas, and this class of point source carbon capture is likely to grow.

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