BEULAH — North Dakota’s first urea plant is expected to start making the solid-form fertilizer early this month, transforming operations at the Great Plains Synfuels and acting as a boon to regional farmers.
The $740 million plant, located near Beulah, was built to produce synthetic natural gas from lignite coal. But with the addition of the urea plant, the facility will mostly produce fertilizer.
Like the farmers the plant will serve, plant manager Dale Johnson said Dakota Gasification Company, an arm of Basin Electric Power Cooperative which runs the plant, is a commodity business. Farmers adjust which crops they plant to the market and he said DGC has done the same thing, shifted to commodities where yield and margins are best. That diversification will also shelter the plant more from price volatility.
Urea will be the 13th product produced at the synfuels plant. The plant already produces the fertilizer ammonium sulfate and anhydrous ammonia. Urea brings fertilizer to about 51 percent of the plan’t gross revenue producer.
The project has been three years in the making, employing more than 1,000 contractors at the peak of construction. Just over 200 contractors were on site in mid-December doing finishing work.
Johnson said workers have been commissioning various parts of the plant — pumps, motors, compressors — running each piece independently doing pressure checks and ensuring integrity. He said they have also completed a “water run,” making sure there are no leaks in the system.
The plant will be ramped up to full production pretty quickly, said Johnson, adding the plant will process 1,100 tons of urea pellets daily.
The system also will produce byproducts that can be sold — diesel exhaust fluid, a vehicle additive for emission control and liquid carbon dioxide, used by the oil industry for enhanced oil recovery and a number of other purposes.
Half of the anhydrous produced by the plant will be turned into urea.
“It’s a good fit for our membership,” Johnson said.
The cooperative is finalizing its marketing plans but its product will likely be used on farms within a 250- to 300-mile radius, including Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana, a state where use of urea is especially common.
The cost of urea, a nitrogen-based fertilizer, has largely been driven by transportation.
“That’s why we’re in nice niche,” Johnson said.
Dave Franzen, a North Dakota State University Extension soil specialist, said in 2014 that the use of urea has been on the rise in North Dakota. About 450,000 tons of it was used by farmers in the state each year and DGC then estimated 2.4 million tons are imported into the region each year.
With DGC starting production, area farmers will be able to save money by buying locally rather than having to import from plants in Canada and Iowa, Johnson said.
The new product line has a number of other benefits for the synfuels plant.
It’s easier to store than anhydrous ammonia and can be produced year round. Previously, the plant was peaking in spring and fall for anhydrous production.
“It’s hard to run a plant like that,” Johnson said.
The plant plans to have its storage facility full in time for spring planting, which takes two months of operations.
The urea storage building is 700’ feet long, 210 feet wide and 90 feet tall. It’s capacity is 53,000 tons. The building will be climate controlled for humidity so the bb-like pellets don’t stick together, said Johnson, adding the plan is to move product in and out to keep it fresh. The shape of each pellet needs to stay uniform so it fits through hoses on farmers’ air seeders, so there is special handling equipment in the building that will gently draw the pellets to a conveyor belt to be carried out of the storage facility into the loading facility for truck or rail transport.
The synfuels plant employs 740 people, with the urea plant adding 40 new positions.
AJ Biel, of Bismarck, will work in the control room. He sat in front of a dozen screens in mid-December watching the measurements coming across as tests were being run. When the plant is operational, he will keep an eye on the monitors for deviations in temperature or plug-ups in the equipment.
During the building process, employees have been training on electronic simulators and dedicated lot of time with outside consultants to learn the the ins and outs of the new facility. Operational and maintenance staff have been involved in the build out so they understand how all of the equipment works, Johnson said.