Is there life after diesel for tractors?

Manufacturers making big inroads with biofuel and battery power in the drive for cleaner fuel

New wave: New Holland says its 6-cylinder methane powered tractor engine delivers the same power (180hp) and torque (740 Nm) as its standard diesel equivalent
New wave: New Holland says its 6-cylinder methane powered tractor engine delivers the same power (180hp) and torque (740 Nm) as its standard diesel equivalent
Innovative: John Deere’s GridCON uses a cable connection

Derek Casey

The Government's recent environmental action plan has set onerous targets on greenhouse gas emissions reductions for 2030 and 2050.

The number of electric cars in Ireland, now in the low thousands, would need to increase by an average of 100,000 annually over the next decade to reach the plan's target of almost one million electric vehicles by 2030.

The move will see the amount of diesel-powered cars being sold plummet in the next decade. Car manufacturers will respond in earnest with all sorts of newer and cheaper electric alternatives.

The popular consensus after the plan was unveiled is generally that farming got off lightly given the amount of emissions the sector produces annually. One of the major actions for agriculture is a commitment to plant 8,000 hectares of new forest each year.

Aside from this reactive forestry strategy to offset emissions, it would be naive to assume farm tractors will be spared the drive to convert to cleaner fuel systems. So could the writing be on the wall for tractor engines as we know them as well?

As in the motor industry, the big tractor manufacturers are well aware of the general push for cleaner fuel across Europe.

Any new tractor launch these days will come with information boasting the various diesel particulate filter and catalytic reduction technologies used to cut emissions. But if diesel power is to be phased out entirely in tractor engines in the not so distant future, much more radical advances will be needed, and at a faster pace.

The options to replace the traditional diesel engine boil down to biofuel, hybrid electric or fully electric.

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Across Europe, many farms generate power from renewable sources, which is hugely financially attractive if used on the farm itself.

For any Irish farmer who has visited farms in Germany, one thing that always jumps out is the number of anaerobic digester plants on farms. With proper leadership from Government, excess energy from these could power local communities or be sold to the national grid, while the by-products of biodigestion could be spread as fertiliser on fields.

Aside from biofuel, high-capacity battery technology is now available on the market, and is ideal for use in compact tractors. The ever-growing need to reduce noise and exhaust emissions is also a driving force behind the development of electrical systems.

In higher powered machines like 200hp tractors, the challenges are similar, but greater to those faced in the motor industry.

For these big engines, we are still at least a decade off finding credible alternatives to diesel power. The main issue with proposed alternatives like electric and biofuels is field autonomy; that is, finding a replacement to diesel fuel that can realistically provide the hours (kilometres/range equivalent in the motor industry) that you can get out of a given tank of fuel for long days in the field. If car drivers are unsure, farmers are as yet incredulous.

The challenges are daunting, but there has been progress on several fronts.

New Holland is a tractor manufacturer which has made good headway to date with biofuel designs, while others like Fendt, John Deere and JCB have done some work on electric power. The construction manufacturing companies like Komatsu are also doing a lot of work on this front.

Looking at developments outlined on these pages certainly suggests there is a lot of work being done in the background. Manufacturers know change is coming, and it is coming quickly. Farming will not be spared when it comes to the drive for cleaner fuel. Electric and biofuel are where the main research is being done, but cost and power output remain key challenges. The challenges facing the farming industry's reliance on diesel power are similar to the motor industry - and sooner or later, the industry will be forced to face up to them.

Indo Farming

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