A few years ago at Husker Harvest Days, New Holland showed off an interesting prototype. It was a fuel-cell powered electric tractor. While it was just a prototype and for now may remain in development, it did show that ag manufacturers are looking at equipment in new ways.
Today, New Holland is on the second version of a first-generation prototype of a different kind of tractor - one powered by methane. Essentially it's a compressed natural gas system that's powering the tractor with a high-level truck engine built to take on ag challenges.
New Holland is claiming energy savings as high as 40% compared to diesel. They also note that methane burns cleaner than diesel, and the engine has only a catalytic converter for emission control. It's a simpler design than even the company's SCR-only Tier 4-final approach.
The challenge is that for now the company has topped out power at 179 hp for the machine, which puts it squarely in chore-tractor/hay-tractor country. That's going to be great for livestock operations looking for cleaner ways to operation.
However, the bigger opportunity is for farms that have installed their own biogas generators. They're more common in Europe than in the U.S. but there are a fair share of methane-producing systems here too.
During a global media conference in Turin, Italy, last week New Holland showed the tractor and its features - it uses nine tanks of compressed natural gas (in this case methane) that can power the machine for about a half day. That half-day operation was a concern for some journalists on hand, but someone suggested that implements could carry added methane to power the tractor longer if needed.
The idea of implements having extra fuel on board was intriguing to me. You could size the amount of tanks on an implement to get to a full day's performance for that tool.
One other idea that was interesting is the concept of the energy independent farm. Producing biogas on a livestock operation is pretty easy, but the farm we visited was using crop materials to create methane too. The next stage would be to add a system to filter and compress the gas so it could be used right on the farm. Imagine not needed to have the fuel tanker come out to top off your storage tanks. It does have a "Doomsday Preppers" vibe about it, but then again anything that can reduce operating costs would help - and biogas is much lower-cost energy source.
Of course this is only the second prototype machine New Holland has operated and between the two they have about 800 hours of operating time. For 2015 the company plans to build more prototypes to put on more hours and determine key issues including durability. The long-term plan, if commercially viable, would be to bring product to market in about five years.
Methane-power isn't diesel power, but New Holland found that the performance curve of the prototype machine closely mirrored the diesel version of the same tractor in matching horsepower. Given electronic fuel control these days, the ability to "profile" engine performance offers engineers the opportunity to tweak how an engine will perform.
And remember this is a 'spark' engine that runs on methane, it's not a diesel setup with a common raild design. We'll keep you posted on the progress of this machine.