BioNitrogen Bets on Biomass for Urea Production
If all goes according to plan, Midwestern farmers will be spreading urea produced from biomass gasification starting in the spring of 2014.
A structural agreement between BioNitrogen and United Suppliers, Inc., an Iowa cooperative, ensures that urea produced from the “to-be-opened” Florida plant will find its way to the co-op and its customers. That's a good thing for them, said Bryan Kornegay, chief financial officer, BioNitrogen, Inc.
"Urea imported from the Black Sea region, China and other areas picks up moisture and often arrives in clumps that have to be reprocessed or cause problems at application," said Kornegay. "We will be providing a clean, high quality product to the farmer without the $75 per ton shipping margin they have to pay with imported product."
BioNitrogen production will also be a good thing for Hardee County, Fla., where the plant will be built. Plans are to use biomass that now ends up in landfills to produce urea. The plant can utilize sugar cane bagasse, palm fronds, rice and peanut hulls, cotton by-products, corn leaves and stalks and virtually any other carbon-based feedstock.
ESTABLISHED METHOD FOR PRODUCTION
Gasification is a well-established method for co-generation. Traditionally, however, it has required significant subsidization. The founders of BioNitrogen have chosen instead to produce a value added product in high demand throughout the country. The gasifier-based process (to be provided by PRM Energy Systems) uses waste material as its main feedstock and produces only urea, a small amount of fly ash and some sulfur.
The modular plant design utilizes the biomass in its first stage gasifier to produce syngas. The syngas is piped to the second module where it is converted to ammonia. This feedstock is then piped to the third module for the final step in urea production. Kornegay said it is the modular nature of the plant design, and in particular the gasification module, that makes the plant singularly different from conventional urea plants dependent on natural gas.
The process design was put together by four Texas Tech researchers looking for ways to utilize cotton gin waste. After looking at biodiesel, ethanol and co-generation, they settled on urea production. The final design is environmentally friendly as well as projecting profitability. It has a low carbon footprint with no emissions, and water is constantly recycled within the plant.
"We can build our plants anywhere we have sufficient biomass and then transport it to farmers who can utilize it," said Kornegay. "If natural gas did fall to a price that was competitive with our syngas, we could shut down the first module and utilize natural gas in the second and third modules."
Korengay noted that swings in the natural gas cycle have in the past encouraged development of nitrogen production facilities, only to see them fail when prices recover. He suggested the biomass gasification module in BioNitrogen's plants ensures they will remain profitable.
PROFITABILITY AND FUTURE PLANTS
Ensuring profitability is inherent in both the 124,000 ton per year sizing and location of the Hardee County plant and future plants. At an estimated cost of $120 million to build, the company projects a three-year payback once operation starts and a price per ton significantly less than current market rates of $180 to $230 per ton for produced urea. Plants can be built and maintained for a tenth that of traditional urea plants and built in a fifth the time.
"While the plant could be built larger or smaller, we found this offered the optimum energy balance," said Kornegay. "As for location, we could build anywhere. However, Florida and other southern tier states like Louisiana offer the most stable sources of biomass."
He pointed out that potential wide-area natural disasters in the Midwest include drought, late spring frosts and flooding that can reduce biomass production. However, wide-area natural disasters in the South are more likely to include hurricanes or tropical storms, which serve only to increase available biomass for gasification.
If their feedstock is ensured, so apparently is the market. United Suppliers has told BioNitrogen it will take all the urea they can produce from this first plant and any future plants. While 124,000 tons represents a drop in the nitrogen import market, it is a start, suggested Kornegay.
"With ten of these plants, we could provide 10 percent of the U.S. market," he said. "United Suppliers has told us they would rather buy a million ton from us than go abroad to purchase it."