Northern Illinois University

Northern Today

Dick Johnson
Dick Johnson

N-Ovation’s nitrogen extracting machinery
Two generations of N-Ovation’s nitrogen extracting machinery are shown. An electrical arc contained in a glass column (shown on the version at right) super-heats air, separating out nitrogen molecules which are captured and stored in the white containers.

An electrical arc travels up electrodes in the N-Ovation machine
An electrical arc travels up electrodes in the N-Ovation machine.


ROCK links companies hoping
to make fertilizer from thin air

July 7, 2008

by Joe King

NIU’s ROCK program has helped forge a partnership between two Illinois companies that could save farmers money on fertilizer, allow them to generate their own electricity and help them become more energy-independent.

Dick Johnson, director of ROCK, did more than introduce the two companies to each other. He also assisted them in writing a grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that resulted in $1 million in research and development funding to help move their machines from the drawing board to the marketplace.

The ROCK program, which is the outreach arm of the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology, is tasked with using the resources of the college to help revitalize the manufacturing sector. While their initial efforts focused mostly on the Rock River Valley, their work has helped them develop an enormous network of manufacturers and inventors.

Typically, Johnson says, ROCK tries to help companies solve problems or launch new initiatives by introducing them to CEET faculty or offering consulting services to help them overcome technical and engineering challenges.

Sometimes, however, it’s also a good idea to introduce them to another company. Such was the case with N-Ovation and Packer Engineering.

Johnson met Gary Frederick of N-Ovation when Frederick approached him to learn about the inexpensive micro-milling machines being devised at EIGERlab, the technology incubator that ROCK oversees in Rockford.

Frederick collaborated with ROCK on that project, and a couple of others, and one day mentioned that he was working on a new project, one that improved upon a century-old process that would allow farmers to make nitrogen-based fertilizers using nothing but air and electricity. The device, however, needed large amounts of electricity, which is an expensive commodity in this region.

Around that same time, through work ROCK was doing with the Quad Cities Armory, Johnson met Peter Schubert of Packer Engineering, who told him about a power plant he was creating that would generate electricity using corn stalks and other agricultural waste for fuel. The only problem was the machine would generate far more power than the average farm could utilize, and the current electricity market does not make selling power back to Illinois utilities an attractive option.

Johnson immediately recognized the potential synergy.

“Gary needed cheap electricity to make fertilizer to grow crops; Peter had a generator powered by crop waste, which created excess electricity,” Johnson says. “The opportunities were obvious.”

Johnson made introductions and drafted a grant application to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, applying to a program that sought creative uses for “spare biomass,” such as corn stalks.

Johnson also introduced N-Ovation and Packer to faculty at NIU’s engineering school who are providing engineering assistance and research to support the efforts of the companies. Some of those activities also might involve graduate and undergraduate students from NIU who will get firsthand experience developing cutting edge technology.

NIU engineering faculty currently are assisting with the high-voltage electronics for the nitrogen extractor and mapping out the chemical process map for the crop waste gassifier that fuels the power plant.

“This project embodies what ROCK is all about,” Johnson says. “It’s using the resources of the university to advance new technologies, stimulate the economy and provide unique research and learning opportunities.”