As you likely know, Whitman County (the home of WSU-Pullman) is the Saudi Arabia of wheat. We’ve produced more wheat than any other county in the United States every year since 1978. Of course it helps that we have a land mass equivalent to the state of Delaware and average just 6 residents per square mile.
What you may not know is the considerable potential for hydrogen to fuel these farms. This is a topic we’ll dive into considerable more detail over the coming years. Let’s overview the pieces for now:
Farmers are incredibly familiar with the chemical definition of PH — short for Pondus Hydrogenii — that’s Latin for the potential of hydrogen and how we named our first hydrogen powered drone a.k.a. Genii. In short, hydrogen is THE metric on farms. It’s how ammonia (NH3) fertilizer “fixes” nitrogen in the soil.
Farmers are also incredibly familiar with the price of diesel, water, and ammonia fertilizer (all are fixed forms of hydrogen). These combine to be the majority of operational costs on farms. So what’s the potential to remove the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen middle-men and sustainably fuel a farm with just hydrogen?
Here are the pieces: 1) Generation, 2) Storage, 3) Utilization, 4) Recycling.
- Generation: Huge potential here to use waste field residue. Ag-Energy Solutions in Spokane operates a business just on producing activated charcoal from field waste. They currently flare the hydrogen synthesis gas liberated during the process. In 2012 we took 2nd in the world developing a system to produce heat, hydrogen, and electricity for the local WSU campus. Bio-digesters and other technologies release huge amounts of hydrogen. There are a number of ways to purify hydrogen using egg shells (calcium carbonate), potassium carbonate, and other mechanisms to remove the CO2. In short, significant potential exists, and is currently economically feasible for some, to generate hydrogen from field waste.
- Storage: Here is the limiter in the entire chain. We can’t cheaply store hydrogen. This is why my lab is so focused on the topic of liquefaction — it’s one of the cheapest methods if you have the energy to pay for liquefaction (minimum of 1/3 of the hydrogen energy). Nobody has a small hydrogen liquefier that is economical for a farm, not even close. Folks try to use ammonia to store hydrogen, but it’s toxic and usually has to be diluted in water extensively before being handled.
- Utilization: New Holland has a hydrogen fuel cell tractor called the NH2. Will be great for very slow control, low emissions, and safety in the field from low heat out-put. The cost of fuel-cells will continue to decrease (dropped x6 since 2005). Where we’ll likely see the first big breakthroughs is on fruit packing equipment, like forklifts, where the emissions from fossil fuels will spoil the product. These hydrogen fueled forklifts knock the socks off of electric, provided you have a hydrogen source nearby. If you can get pure nitrogen you can combine with hydrogen to generate ammonia fertilizer via the Haber-Bosch process.
- Recycling; The best news is that all of the hydrogen you’ve collected is recycled back to your farm. the hydrogen fuel becomes water in the fuel cell, the hydrogen fertilizer is fixing nitrogen back into the soil. The plants are generating more field-waste residue to make more hydrogen with.
What’s more, processing this hydrogen locally and affordably is the key to long-term sustainability of our farms. Feel free to reach out (firstname.lastname@example.org) as we develop the local partnerships necessary to realize this future of farming.