Freeman Awards continue to inspire innovation

An ammonium nitrate project has won Minnkota's annual innovation competition at the University of North Dakota.


Emily Windjue


June 19, 2024

Innovation has always been at the heart of Minnkota’s operations, a legacy rooted in the visionary leadership of Andy Freeman, the cooperative’s first general manager. His commitment to teamwork, communication and creativity continues to inspire new generations through the Andrew L. Freeman Innovation Awards, which recognize the top senior engineering design projects at the University of North Dakota (UND).

Four UND chemical engineering students took home first prize at this yearʼs award ceremony held on May 9. The team, consisting of BriAnna Amundson, John Goebel, Austin Hamilton and Samuel Williams, earned $2,000 for their project, which investigated the technical and commercial feasibility of a facility that produces fertilizer-grade ammonium nitrate pellets for supply to Upper Midwest and central Canadian farmers.

“In the Midwest, farmers grow corn, soybeans and sunflowers, and they all need very high nitrogen fertilizers,” Williams said. “This fertilizer would essentially be better than the common urea option, which is typically produced.”

The proposed project would not only improve the quality of fertilizer used by farmers in the region with increased nitrate in the soil, but the byproduct of nitrogen could also be sold to oil and gas companies in western North Dakota – benefitting two major industries in the state.

UND Professor of Chemical Engineering Wayne Seames nominated and mentored the winning engineering students. When asked what encouraged him to nominate this particular group of students, he credited their high standard of excellence and the innovative thought process behind their project. Seames has nominated students for the Freeman Awards since the first competition in 2000.

Two student teams tied for second place and each earned $1,000. One group focused on the design of lunar robots capable of transporting and reforming regolith (soil) into berms. The other team worked to improve the battery performance of an all-terrain vehicle while operating in extreme cold conditions.

Kennelly presented nominees with a short history of Minnkota and the role the cooperative plays within the regional electrical grid. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)

“We’ve been at this for 24 years and it’s pretty amazing,” Brendan Kennelly, Minnkota’s Vice President of Power Delivery, said of the Freeman Awards during the ceremony. “We are proud to keep Andy’s legacy of teamwork, communication and innovation alive."

The Andrew L. Freeman Innovation Awards have been held since 2000 following the formation of an endowment by Minnkota. A UND alumni, Freeman helped lead many energy industry innovations throughout his 42-year career, but he’s perhaps best known as the inventor of the headbolt heater – a product developed to ensure vehicles would start on cold winter days.

Deb Austreng, the Director of Alumni, Corporate & Public Relations for the School of Engineering & Mines, has been assisting with the Freeman Awards for the past 15 years.

"We have instructors that nominate students every year. They start reaching out mid-semester asking when the awards are,” Austreng said. “The students are excited about it. It’s very cool to end your semester and your college career winning something like this.”

Cover image: Senior Manager of Engineering Kasey Borboa (far left) and Vice President of Power Delivery Brendan Kennelly (far right) present the winning team of (left to right) Samuel Williams, BriAnna Amundson, John Goebel and Austin Hamilton with their innovation awards.


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