A large dairy farm in Northern Ireland is trialling a new system of reducing ammonia emissions while producing its own liquid nitrogen fertiliser.
This new concept, developed by Norwegian company N2 Agri, involves passing manure or digestate through a plasma reactor to produce the liquid nitrogen fertiliser.
This process, says the company, will ultimately save farmers up to 20 per cent of their artificial fertiliser costs and also reduce their ammonia production levels.
Although the concept has moved beyond the prototype stage, it is still being tested around the world: on a pig farm in Denmark and on a 650-cow dairy farm near Templepatrick in Northern Ireland.
The dairy farm is run by Robin Bingham and his son George, who installed a biogas plant one year ago, which produces electricity and supplies it into the national grid.
In total, the farm has 1200 cows, including dry cows and followers, and runs a zero-grazing system where the fresh grass is harvested and delivered to the cows daily.
The plasma reactor was installed at the farm five months ago on a trial and is already producing liquid nitrogen, which has been spread on test plots at the farm.
N2 Agri said its goal was to fundamentally improve the global food production by enabling farmers to produce their own fertiliser from manure, air and renewable energy. By installing their system, N2 Agri said farmers could potentially save up to 20 per cent on their artificial nitrogen costs and with these savings should be able to pay back the plasma reactor in about six or seven years.
With expertise gained in the fertiliser industry over many years, the experts at N2 Agri have developed and patented this technology that uses a plasma reactor that fixes nitrogen from the air and adds it to the manure.
This causes a reaction with the manure and stops ammonia losses as well as emissions of other greenhouse gasses, and removes bad odour.
Besides reduction of ammonia emissions, the system increases the nitrogen content in the manure and transforms it from a waste product into a high-value fertiliser.
N2 Agri business development director Henk Aarts, said: "Our objective is to empower livestock farmers through the introduction of a low-cost, scalable fertiliser production on the farms.
"Our ultimate goal is to substitute chemical fertilisers with fertiliser produced locally on the farm from air and renewable energy. And meanwhile, we work on a better stable climate and a more sustainable livestock sector.
"We can also upgrade biogas digestate to a higher value fertiliser with our technology."
Although the company is trialling two machines in Europe, it has plans to embark on more trials further afield in places such as South Africa.
N2 Agri is partnering with SBI, an innovative plasma welding company based in Hollarunn, Austria. N2 and SBI are further using the competence of the University of Vienna for analysis of plasma composition and temperatures.
Mr Aarts said: "We are not in the phase of selling machines yet, but want to show our plasma reactor and explain the working principles to the stakeholders.
"Our reactor is not fully developed, but we want to test it under farm conditions in an early stage to get experience with different types of manure and biogas digestate and to do field trials on different crops, which on the Bingham farm are grass plots."
The key argument to convince farmers to use this plasma reactor is to explain how they are losing so much nitrogen from their livestock and slurry, which is later supplemented by artificial fertiliser spread on the ground.
In fact, there are 2.13 million tonnes of ammonia lost on European livestock farms each year, which is a huge loss of potential fertiliser.
One of the founders of N2 Agri is Norwegian Rune Ingels, a chemical engineer who spent almost 30 years working in the fertiliser industry, more recently with Yara, before resigning to embark on his own ideas.
Mr Ingels explained how farmers lose nitrogen and were then forced to pay out for expensive artificial fertiliser.
"We need above 95 per cent moisture content in the manure to make the system work," he said. "Slurry has 50 per cent free ammonia but digestate has around 70 per cent free ammonia. Just over 50 per cent of the total nitrogen available in slurry is lost before it can be spread on the ground. However, using our system we can make more nitrogen available for plants, which are also taken up quicker by the plants increasing their growing rates and yields.
"There are some tweaks needed to the system the Binghams are using as it is primarily installed to test yields at the moment."
Dairy farmer George Bingham said the system interested him as it met his desire to farm in a more environmentally friendly way.
"Using this plasma reactor system will help us achieve our goals of farming more environmentally friendly while at the same time, sorting out my ammonia quotas," Mr Bingham said.
"I see this as a potential game changer across the world helping farmers get more from their farmyard slurry and saving them money.
"For me, reducing or even eliminating my chemical fertiliser bill is one of the main benefits of this system.
"The system has only been installed one month and we have already produced our own liquid nitrogen and spread it on some grass test plots to see if the theories of faster plant growth with higher yields are feasible."
It is anticipated that a farm with 150 to 200 cows would need one 25-kiloWatt plasma reactor, so a 600-cow herd would need three units.
Mr Aarts said the reactors could be scaled to suit the farm.
"We can change the sizes of the reactor to suit the herd," he said. "We don't have exact prices as yet but I can tell you a reactor is cheaper than a milking robot and is the same size as one."D
For more information, go to website http://fusionfarming.com/.
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