Pursuing carbon emission-free renewable energy.
My father, Raphael Schmuecker, was a vocal advocate of using hydrogen as a fuel to replace fossil fuels. After he died in 2005, I decided to pursue the idea of installing a hydrogen system on the 1500 acres of farmland that our family owns in eastern Iowa. I focused on the 320 acres of the Pinehurst Farm, my father’s birthplace and childhood home outside of Blairstown, Iowa.
Our farm’s history
The period around 1910 was the zenith of American agriculture. At that time both of my grandfathers, Fred Tiedemann and Henry Schmuecker, farmed land northeast of Blairstown, Iowa.
Farms at that time were mostly self-contained. Beef and dairy cattle, hogs, chickens and sheep were raised on the farm and horses provided the power to work the land. Farms grew mostly corn, oats and hay. Much of what was grown was fed to the horses and other farm animals. Every farm had a garden. Animal manure was hauled out to the field to fertilize the ground. The only thing that had to be brought in and applied to the farm was lime, which was spread on the fields.
In the early 1920s, gasoline-powered tractors started to appear. My Grandfather purchased his first tractor in 1922.
I was told that Fred Tiedemann fell asleep one afternoon after lunch on a Fordson tractor while plowing and drove through a neighboring fence. Horses would have had the sense to stop after reaching the end of the row. Art Siek, my mother’s uncle, was the Standard Oil distributor and delivered gasoline to the farmers for their tractors.
My Uncle Art and another gentlemen had a mortgage on the Schmuecker Pinehurst Farm on which my grandfather raised purebred Angus cattle. In 1937, in order to pay off the mortgage that was called in, Henry Schmuecker had to sell Pinehurst and move to a farm two miles north of Amana, where he continued to raise Angus cattle. He sold the Pinehurst Farm to Mr. Klinger, who had a paint factory in Cedar Rapids. In 1944, one of Henry’s bulls won the championship in Chicago.
In 1947 Fred Tiedemann retired and rented out his land. At that time a family could live by farming 160 acres. In the 1950s, larger and more powerful tractors using diesel started appearing and the trend has continued. Chemical fertilizers also appeared and continue to be applied to fields to raise the yields.
I attended Blairstown School in 1940 (Kindergarten), 1943 (Third Grade), and 1950 (High School Freshman). This was the school my parents went to after attending country school. I spent many summers visiting the Tiedemann Farm.
With the encouragement of my parents, in 1999 I purchased the 320-acre Pinehurst Farm from the grandchildren of Mr. Klinger. I own the farm as an LLC with my three children, Jayne, Matthew and Amy. Members of our family also own two other farms nearby—Tiedemann Farm (where my mom was born and raised) and surrounding land that my parents purchased over the years.
Powering forward with natural resources
When I began to pursue my idea of installing a hydrogen system, I was interested in seeing if we could get back to having farms that could generate fuel that is carbon-emission free. I wanted a hydrogen-powered tractor that could be used on the farm.
Throughout my 50+ year career at Caltech’s NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I talked at length with colleagues—space scientists—who believe that high carbon emissions are contributing to global warming. If you do not accept that there are adverse effects from excessive carbon emissions, then consider this: as fossil energies are depleted, their cost will increase. Farmers will need to use other methods of providing motive power and chemical fertilizers. Otherwise, reverting back to the use of horses may one of our few options for farm operations.
The Pinehurst Farm area is in a marginal wind turbine area, as the average wind velocity is around 12 mph. I decided to install solar panels which, because of my spacecraft experiences working for NASA, I preferred, as they do not have many moving parts. I wanted solar energy to power a hydrogen generator, which uses electric current to break down water into hydrogen and oxygen.
Sizing the system
About five gallons of diesel fuel is needed to farm an acre/year for corn, and about 3.5 gallons for beans. A kilogram of hydrogen gas has about the same energy content as a gallon of diesel fuel. A pound (.45kg) of hydrogen at atmospheric pressure is about 194 cu. ft. in volume.
As a result, I calculated that we would need 3000 pounds of hydrogen a year to farm the 320 acres when half was in corn and the other half in beans. This would require 77 kilowatts of electrical power, assuming that over a year the solar panels provide power on an average of 5 hours a day.
Dennis Crow, who farms the Pinehurst Farm land, estimated that he uses half of his fuel for planting in the spring and half in the fall at harvest time. The growing season is about 150 days, which meant that I would need to generate 10 pounds of hydrogen a day and be able to store 1500 lbs. in tanks. I figured that during the other 215 days we could generate enough hydrogen for spring planting.
After looking at what the costs of an operational system would be, and the quality of the numbers that were used in sizing the system, I concluded that I would install a demonstration solar-hydrogen system that provided 10% of what would be required to fuel all the farm operations. From the actual data we would gather we could refine what would be required for an operational system.
A hydrogen-fueled tractor
Dennis was interested in having a tractor that he would use under full power in the field, however, because of the limited hydrogen generated, our hydrogen tractor is capable of being used for 10% of the farm operations.
I started out assuming that I could obtain a diesel tractor and have it modified to run on hydrogen. Companies are working on diesels that run on hydrogen, but are years away from having a product. New Holland has developed an award-winning fuel cell powered tractor, but the costs of obtaining a tractor powered by fuel cells is prohibitive.
We contacted the Hydrogen Engine Center (HEC)—which was in Algona, Iowa at the time—which had been making Internal Combustion Engines that were modified to run on hydrogen gas. They agreed to provide a Ford 460 cu. in. V-8 engine design that could be installed in a tractor and used in the field. We selected and purchased a John Deere 7810 tractor. The four hydrogen tanks are sized to contain enough fuel to operate the tractor at full power for four hours before refueling.
Adding ammonia to the system
We initially agreed to include a small propane tank on the tractor that could be used as “back-up” if Dennis ran low on hydrogen fuel while in the field. The engine would operate on either hydrogen or propane. We later agreed that we would instead include a small back-up ammonia tank on the tractor, with the ability to switch between powering the tractor with hydrogen or ammonia/hydrogen.
However, I wanted to have a completely renewable fuel generation capability rather than purchasing ammonia. This led us to the idea of developing an ammonia generator.
In late 2013, I talked with Doug Carpenter, Founder and President of Sustainable Fuels in Tustin, California, about his idea of generating ammonia from solar power. I found that we annually apply nitrogen-based fertilizers to the corn cropland. If all the fertilizers were ammonia, 5600 pounds of hydrogen would be applied.
I decided to have Doug make the ammonia reactor and added the other ammonia subsystem hardware to create a sustainable ammonia production system.
The demonstration ammonia generation subsystem makes locally made ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen, that is separated from the air. The ammonia is stored in a small nurse tank that can be used to fuel the tractor or be applied to the corn cropland.