Company Plans to Make Ammonia From Cobs in Central Iowa

Plant to be built near Menlo would be the first of its kind in the U.S. to convert biomass into fertilizer.

A company based in San Francisco, Calif. - SynGest - announced earlier this month that it will make anhydrous ammonia and fertilizer from corncobs and other biomass at a factory the firm plans to build on 75 acres near Menlo in central Iowa. The $80 million plant will be the first of its kind in the United States to convert biomass into fertilizer, says CEO Jack Oswald.

Oswald says the process this plant will use will burn cobs at temperatures up to 1,700 degrees to produce vapor that is liquefied into ammonia. That would be unique because today, most chemical ammonia fertilizers are made from a process that takes nitrogen from the air by using natural gas.

The ammonia manufacturing facility will be adjacent to the Hawkeye Renewables ethanol plant east of Menlo. The facility, once up and running, will employ about 40 workers. Oswald says the firm wants to break ground by 2010 and be in production sometime in 2011. SynGest has signed an agreement to buy the land.

Will buy and use locally-produced corncobs

The SynGest plant will use 150,000 tons of locally supplied corncobs to make 50,000 tons of bio-ammonia annually, enough to fertilize 500,000 acre of nearby Iowa corn. Oswald adds, "We plan to make an announcement soon of a partnership with a major agribusiness firm that will work with farmers to sell their corncobs for use in the plant."

The SynGest venture, if it is realized, will be Iowa's second major cellulosic energy project. Poet, a major ethanol producer, plans to build an ethanol production facility at Emmetsburg that would use corncobs as fuel. The Poet plant is to be built next year.

Oswald says one acre of corn production generates about one ton of corncobs. Only about one-third of those cobs would be needed to make enough ammonia to fertilize the acre of corn production. He also says corncobs will likely bring $30 to $50 per ton when sold as feedstock for either fertilizer or ethanol production.

Plans to make ammonia for a reasonable price

SynGest hopes to make ammonia fertilizer that could be sold for $600 per ton or less. Farmers have had to pay skyrocketing fertilizer costs caused by volatility in the natural gas market in recent years. The price of nitrogen fertilizer has increased from $200 a ton five years ago to more than $1,000 last summer.

Much of the ammonia used in the United States is imported - mostly from Russia and Trinidad. The U.S. uses 18 million tons of ammonia per year. "Without this vital fertilizer, our country's crop yields would fall significantly, says Oswald. "This is worrisome because more than half of the ammonia used in the U.S. imported from Trinidad which has dwindling gas reserves and Russia which has a reputation for interrupting critical supplies for political gain."

SynGest is trying to get state financial assistance to help build the Menlo plant. Poet will get $20 million from the Iowa Department of Economic Development and the Iowa Power Fund to help build its Emmetsburg cellulosic ethanol plant.

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