The basic design of the tractor – the workhorse of agriculture, has remained little changed since the days of Harry Ferguson, new technology e.g. precision systems and GPS have been added, but some fundamentals remain e.g. the basic chassis design and three point linkage, a drivers seat, and a diesel engine. That however may soon change.
There has been some debate in the UK about proposals to phase out diesel powered cars, and the introduction of driver-less lorries onto our roads, but what about about tractors? It is likely that driver-less tractors will be more readily accepted off-road, many agricultural engineers are already developing driver-less technology, and farming is likely to be in the vanguard of industries adopting driver-less technology, but what will power these machines?
New Holland Agriculture, a global agricultural equipment brand of CNH Industrial N.V has recently unveiled a methane powered concept tractor. The companies commercial vehicles subsidiary Iveco is already producing methane powered trucks and buses. The company claims that the engine is able to deliver a maximum 180hp and maximum torque of 740Nm, the same level of performance as an equivalent diesel power plant. The concept adapts existing technology, and is fitted to a standard tractor chassis, which means it simply looks and drives like a conventional diesel powered tractor. The company claim that the cost of buying one is likely to be the same. Total fuel capacity is 52kg of compressed methane fitted into nine tanks around the tractor; this is claimed to be enough for around six hours of work depending on the type of activity with re-fuelling taking around the same time to fill as with diesel.
The company claims that methane engines could allow farmers to spearhead a move towards renewable powered vehicles. Bio-methane could be produced on farm using waste crop material and animal manure, allowing farming businesses to gain greater energy independence, they could also sell bio-methane to others. Testing on farms in the UK, has found that methane powered tractors could reduce fuel costs by around 25-40%, and reduce pollutant emissions by up to 80%.
Adapting existing technology is likely to be a key advantage, a machine that looks and performs identically to conventional diesel powered tractors will more easily gain acceptance with farmers. Savings in running costs will be another key advantage. Once driver-less technology is more commercially ready, new machines could easily use methane powered engines. The key barrier to uptake is likely to be the infrastructure required, but the number of on farm bio-gas plants is increasing, and the future success of the machine is likely to depend on the technologies actual performance on farms.