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Methane powered tractors; fashion or future?

Insights

Tying in with the theme of a future based on sustainability, New Holland took the opportunity to update the world on its methane-powered tractor at the Milan Expo. James Rickard reports.

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Driven on by its vision of an energy independent farm concept which is being piloted at the La Bellotta farm just outside of Turin, New Holland continues to develop and refine its methane powered tractor idea.

 

Now on prototype number two, the original concept saw one of New Holland’s T6.140 tractors adapted to accommodate one of sister firm and engine manufacturer, FPT’s four cylinder, F1C gas-fuelled engine.

 

Already used in vans, the three-litre capacity F1C engine required a chassis to be suspended in and a drop box to reduce shaft speed going into the gearbox, from 3,500rpm to 2,200rpm. This also increases torque at the gear box, while reducing strain on the engine.

 

One of the major modifications required though was to fit nine methane storage tanks. With two either side of the cab where diesel tanks and exhaust after treatment units would normally reside and two underneath the cab, three are incorporated into the rear of the cab frame, resulting in ‘fat’ rear pillars.

 

Tank capacity is 300 litres, equivalent to 52kg of compressed bio-methane gas, enough for half a day’s work, according to New Holland. There is a 15 litre reserve tank for emergencies.

 

The aim of the second prototype methane-powered tractor was to make it much more akin to a regular tractor in terms of performance and build.

As for the transmission and rear-end, it is exactly the same as a regular production T6.

 

With an engine output of 136hp and 350Nm and power and torque curves similar to a diesel equivalent, New Holland was encouraged enough to progress to the next phase.

 

While prototype number one proved the concept worked, its use of a half chassis and a small, high revving engine did mean it was regarded as a ‘special’ build.

 

The aim of the second prototype was to make the concept more akin to a regular tractor. For this the firm decided to user a larger T6.175 tractor and incorporate a larger FPT, six-cylinder, six-litre, Nef 6 engine. As a structural engine, it also means it does not require a chassis to sit in and can be bolted directly to the tractor’s gearbox, making it much more interchangeable with a diesel engine. And as it runs at speeds similar to a diesel, this also negates the need for a reduction gearbox.

 

Power output is 179hp with 740Nm of torque. Again, power and torque curves are very close if not slightly better in some areas than a diesel equivalent. A short test drive confirmed this along with how refined and quiet the methane-fuelled engine is. The manufacturer adds tests have shown it to be just as capable as a diesel tractor at carrying out a variety applications.

 

One of the largest engineering challenges with the methane-powered tractor is to find space for all the gas tanks.

While you may get a slightly disconcerting feeling sat surrounded by fuel tanks pressurised to 200bar, we are assured they meet the same automotive standards as used in cars and commercial vehicles.

 

Unfortunately, storage tanks are the same as used on the first prototype and still only allow half a day’s work, and encroach significantly on rear visibility. But, you could say development is heading in the right direction and the manufacturer is already looking into how it can expand the tractor’s working window by incorporating fuel tanks in the front ballast, or even in tanks on the implement. The latter would allow tank capacity to vary from implement to implement depending on how long you want to work with that implement.

 

Apart from the storage tanks, you can hardly tell there is anything different about the tractor. Even a look under the bonnet things and still look business as usual, apart from the addition of spark plugs.

Ancillaries such as cooling pack, alternator and starter motor are the same too. Even service intervals are similar.

 

Technology involved

Technology involved

While New Holland is taking current plaudits for the methane-powered tractor, it was sister tractor brand, Steyr, who kicked off the concept by showing a methane-powered tractor at the 2011 Agritechnica using the aforementioned F1C engine.

 

As for the technology involved, it is nothing new to CNH Industrial, which has been using FPT-developed engines in its Iveco commercial vehicles such as vans, trucks and buses for many years. As a result, production of this tractor is not as complicated as you might think, says New Holland.

 

The only real difference compared to equivalent diesel tractors is engine and fuel storage tanks; everything else is pretty much identical, allowing the tractors to be built using existing production lines and techniques.

 

Unfortunately, maximum power produced by a methane-fuelled engine is more governed by displacement volume compared to a diesel engine which has a greater window of tuning. Therefore if more power is required, a larger engine will be necessary.

 

As for using it in other models and machines, this is a possibility and a telehandler would be a logical step, especially one working on an AD plant, says New Holland. For now, the mid-range, mass-volume model of the T6 is a good place to start.

 

In terms of environmental impact, the methane-powered tractor has 80 per cent lower polluting emissions than a standard diesel tractor and is already capable of fulfilling future greenhouse gas targets, which are expected to require a 20 per cent reduction across Europe by 2020.

 

It also requires very little after treatment compared to diesel engines – just a three-way catalyst incorporated into the exhaust pipe. And because it is gas powered, even fuel filters are not required.

However, gas does have to be treated if it is coming from an AD plant – requiring compression and filtering.

 

Commercial availability is a while off yet with New Holland required to undergo five years of validation testing. The plan is to get the tractor looking as close as possible to a standard tractor, says the manufacturer.

In theory, the manufacturer says, the price of a methane-powered tractor will be the same as an equivalent diesel-powered model and with lower running costs.

 

Those of you with a decent memory will remember that this is not New Holland’s first foray into alternative fuels and has already developed a hydrogen fuel cell powered tractor. Unfortunately, it cost a lot to develop and is just not viable at the moment. The firm does say though when the cost of producing one does come down it may look into the technology again. For now, methane power suits the current situation.

Where does a methane-powered tractor fit in?

Where does a methane-powered tractor fit in?

While interest in a methane-powered tractor is still relatively small, there is enough to justify the manufacturer continuing with development.

 

An obvious home for the tractor would be Germany, where nearly 8,000 AD plants provide more than 4 per cent of the country’s energy - fitting in with New Holland’s vision of an energy independent farm concept.

 

However, talking to German colleagues reveals that energy crop growers might not be too keen on fuelling tractors with valuable methane, but rather take the money from the energy companies.

 

On a smaller scale, and perhaps more appealing to self sufficient types rather than the big energy suppliers, the tractor could easily fit in on a dairy farm with its own AD plant using animal slurry to produce energy for farm and equipment.

 

However, while New Holland has a vision of the tractor fitting in on a self sustaining farm, with the tractor using energy created by grown crops, interest could easily see the tractor be more popular within municipality circles, it says, such as working for councils and airports, for example.

 

One source of interest in the technology, according to New Holland, is from the companies which supply these AD plants, wanting to include the methane-powered tractor into deals as an added value to their own product.

Similarly, the appeal of a tractor with green credentials to tick boxes when tendering for contracts is also a big draw for farming business and growers supplying supermarkets and processors.

Costings

Costings

Compared to an equivalent diesel tractor, New Holland reckons the second generation methane-powered tractor can bring fuel cost savings from 20 up to 40 per cent, depending on cost of local fuel.

 

Based on findings from its Bellotta research farm the methane-powered tractor uses 10 per cent more fuel per unit of power compared to diesel.

 

Therefore, if a methane tractor is to be cheaper to run than a diesel tractor, the cost of methane gas has to be less than 1.1 times the cost of diesel.

 

Using research from Belotta, the table below shows how diesel and methane prices compare.

 

Diesel (Euros/litre) from fuel station

Agricultural diesel (Euros/litre)

Methane (Euros/kg) from distribution grid

Bio methane (Euros/kg) from AD plant

Savings

1.40

-

0.98

-

36%

-

0.80

0.50

-

43%

-

0.80

-

0.40

55%

Methane power pros and cons

Pros

  • Cheaper to run
  • Quieter and smoother
  • Fewer emissions

 

Cons

  • Only half a day’s work at the moment
  • Tank design is currently bulky
  • Long filling time
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