Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

N-Ovation founder Gary Frederick (left) and Lead Engineer for Plasma Systems Drew Witte pose with their machine that extracts nitrogen from the air.
-Ovation founder Gary Frederick (left) and Lead Engineer for Plasma Systems Drew Witte pose with their machine that extracts nitrogen from the air.

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News Release

Contact: Joe King, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-4299

July 8, 2008

Fertilizer from thin air
– new technologies improve an old idea

Savanna, Ill. — The equipment being developed by N-Ovations could allow farmers to independently generate all of the nitrogen-based fertilizers they need, a particularly large expense for growers of corn, wheat and rice.

The price paid for nitrogen fertilizers by US farmers increased 65 percent during the last year (according to the USDA) due to increasing worldwide demand and the rising cost of the natural gas needed to make the product. At current rates, a farmer planting 2,000 acres of corn can expect to spend nearly $150,000 of year on anhydrous ammonia, urea or other forms of nitrogen fertilizer.

The key to freeing farmers around the world from those rising prices, believe the founders of Savanna, Ill., based N-Ovations, can be found in a century-old method of creating fertilizer, using artificial lightning, efficiently mimicking nature’s way of putting nitrogen into the soil.

The intense heat of a lightning bolt “fixes,” or combines, normally inert atmospheric nitrogen (which comprises nearly 80 percent of the air around us) with oxygen. Those atoms then combine with rainwater to create dilute nitric acid. The nitric acid falls to earth and combines with minerals in the soil to create nitrites which nourish plants. While estimates put the amount of nitrogen created through this process at 175 billion pounds a year, it is not enough (nor always in the right places) to meet the needs of food crops.

In 1905, Norwegian scientist, Kristian Birkeland devised a way to use electricity to mimic lightning and then capture the resulting nitrogen. The downside to the process was that it required large amounts of electricity, making it feasible in Norway, where there was abundant hydroelectric power, but less so elsewhere.

The process was almost completely abandoned around World War I when German scientists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosh devised a new process that stripped nitrogen from the air by fixing it with three atoms of hydrogen, forming ammonia. The hydrogen for the process is most commonly obtained from natural gas.

That process was efficient enough that it has been the standard for nearly 100 years. Recently, however, dramatic spikes in the cost of natural gas (which accounts for more than 70 percent of the cost of nitrogen fertilizers) helped drive fertilizer prices to all time highs. 

Those circumstances prompted the owners of N-Ovation to re-examine the Birkeland process. By applying modern technologies they predict that they can boost the efficiency of the process to 10 percent. By recovering the waste heat from the process they believe they can push that efficiency to 40 percent.

The device will be configured to receive its primary source of electricity either from traditional sources (the electrical grid), a windmill or a generator being developed by Packer Engineering of Naperville that operates on corn stalks and other agricultural waste.

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