2023 Palys Techno-economic optimization of renewable urea production for sustainable agriculture and CO2 utilization

Urea is the most used nitrogen fertilizer due to its ease of storage, transportation, and application. It is made by combining ammonia and carbon dioxide (CO2), both of which are produced predominantly from fossil fuels at present. The recent momentum behind ammonia production using renewable-powered electrolysis offers an opportunity to both make urea in a more sustainable way and utilize CO2 from external sources. In this work, we present a techno-economic optimization model to minimize the cost of making urea in this way. The model allows for time-varying chemical production in response to renewable variability by simultaneously optimizing production facility design and hourly operation. We performed a case study for Minnesota considering the use of byproduct CO2 from bioethanol production. We found that the present-day levelized cost of renewable urea is between $268/mt and $413/mt at likely implementable production scales up to 250.000 mt/yr. This is within the range of historical conventional urea prices while offering at least 78% carbon intensity reduction. Projecting to 2030, there is a clear economic case for renewable urea production with levelized cost as low as $135/mt due to technology improvement and electrolysis manufacturing expansion, facilitating a urea production scale increase to 525.000 mt/yr. Optimal facilities use wind energy, with hydrogen and ammonia production operating in a flexible, time-varying way to minimize battery and hydrogen storage capacities. Urea production operates near steady state due to the relatively low cost of intermediate ammonia buffer storage. A mix of imported methane and locally produced hydrogen are used to provide heat for steam consumed in the urea synthesis.

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