KU researchers' unique microgrid technology aims to boost rural resiliency

“Kansas wind farm” by Lander Photography.

Good Tuesday afternoon. Recently I’ve been thinking about how a lot of startups or research and development projects are laser-focused on one technology or idea. They set out to solve a specific problem and the scope of the solution therefore is narrow.

Recently I came across a project led by University of Kansas researchers that takes a different, multidisciplinary approach: It combines wind, water, agriculture, and energy production to provide economic and environmental benefits for rural communities. I spoke with some of the team members about the FEWtures project to boost farms’ food, energy, and water resiliency while promoting sustainable agriculture and renewable energy. A key component to the microgrid technology is managing the variability of an abundant plains resource — wind — to create ammonia and use it as energy storage. Get the scoop on their work after the daily headlines.

☢️ NUCLEAR: A University of Wisconsin-Madison professor believes utilizing readily available nuclear technology is the cheapest way toward Wisconsin’s zero-carbon future, reports WisBusiness. However, the state only has one nuclear energy plant and no utilities currently appear interested in building new reactors.

🚘 TRANSPORTATION:

  • Today the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents automakers including Midwest-based General Motors and Ford, released a report calling for governmental actions to boost the electric vehicle market, Reuters reports. The trade association seeks research and development incentives and incentives for converting factories to build cleaner vehicle technologies. The alliance says the national strategy is necessary to remain competitive globally in auto innovation.

  • Carbon-based fuels like gasoline and diesel likely will remain the U.S. Army’s main fuel choice for vehicles because they best meet the Army’s operational requirements for the highest-density fuel with the lowest mass and volume, according to Defence Blog’s analysis of a University of Michigan professor’s study. The report examined why the Army isn’t using more alternative fuels and powertrains.

  • AAPG Explorer highlights a research project at Des Plaines, Illinois-based Gas Technology Institute that turns carbon dioxide into clean fuel. GTI is making small amounts of high-quality jet fuel and hopes to commercialize the gas-to-liquids process.

🌙 SPACE: Purdue University is leading a NASA-funded research project testing a smart habitat that would allow humans to stay on the moon for extended periods, reports the Wall Street Journal. Researchers are simulating solutions for challenges such as lunar soil accumulating on solar panels and a small meteorite strike.

Now, back to the five-year rural resiliency project, funded by the National Science Foundation. The study has a lot of moving parts that cooperate to provide a potentially viable renewable energy and sustainability solution. “It's a conceptual study to see if all these pieces are brought together they can create a viable economic model for rural areas,” said Mary Hill, lead project investigator and geology professor at the University of Kansas.

The goal: Determine if a resilient agriculture model can sustain farmers’ profits and economically benefit rural areas while reusing water, managing nutrients, and boosting food security. It starts with harnessing wind, a resource readily available in the central plains that is growing cheaper by the moment.

Renewable energy source production is variable depending on whether the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. Finding ways to harness the energy when it’s available and store it for later use is a big deal right now. The FEWtures project aims to show that wind can be used for flexibly scheduled water treatment processes and sustainably manufacturing ammonia, a product integral to modern farming and promising for energy storage.

“We try to envision rural communities of the future and the choices they can make today for development to increase productivity and improve the local economy. We’re using that opportunity of renewable energy,” Hill said.

Ammonia is one of the world’s most commonly produced chemicals, and 75% to 90% of it goes toward making fertilizer. About 50% of the food we eat relies on ammonia fertilizer. But ammonia takes a lot of energy to make and the process creates an estimated 1% to 2% of global CO2 emissions.

Ammonia production typically involves converting natural gas to hydrogen and then combining it with nitrogen. The FEWtures team wants to grab nitrogen from the air and combine it with the hydrogen from water by using wind energy, eliminating natural gas. The resulting ammonia can be used as fertilizer on farms.

The same ammonia molecules also serve as energy storage, or a battery of sorts, because splitting the ammonia into hydrogen and nitrogen creates energy. “Ammonia stores hydrogen at a higher density than hydrogen itself,” said Peter Pfromm, FEWtures ammonia team lead and Washington State University professor. This also opens the door for applications in hydrogen fuel technologies.

The hidden benefit: Ammonia’s widespread global use means transportation and storage infrastructure already exist. Because no new network would need to be established, ammonia for energy storage could prove more economically viable than other emerging clean energies. “It's not like hydrogen, which has no transport system established. Ammonia is not a problem at all. We handle it every day,” Pfromm said.

Community involvement: Hill notes that projects at the food-energy nexus can be complex but have a lot of benefits, and it’s important to involve a variety of stakeholders from the start. In this case, some stakeholders are energy providers, wastewater management, private businesses, farmers, and the research community.

As a whole, the separate elements comprise a unique microgrid technology that balances wind production, energy demand, and energy storage. “It could be that we don't need a sophisticated microgrid for the system we have. By having a sophisticated analysis we can figure out what is required to be resilient,” Hill said.

Timing is everything: FEWtures has been underway for a year, but it is picking up speed at an ideal time when people are paying attention, said Susan Stover, who leads the engagement and policy team. The pandemic, historic wildfires and hurricanes, and a general increase in public attention to clean energy and sustainability contribute to “a moment of disruption right now. … It’s fortuitous that this is coming together at a time I think people are recognizing the moment of disruption,” she said.

What’s next: The project team views their research as a stepping stone not just for wind and ammonia-as-storage, but also for other new technologies that will emerge during the clean energy transition.

“Ammonia is a nice pivot molecule,” Pfromm said. “The renewable energy puzzle will not be solved with one piece. This is just a contribution.”


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