Farm Ireland
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Sunday 16 December 2018

Why we are years away from credible alternatives to diesel power in farming

New Holland Agriculture is the tractor manufacturer which has made by far the most headway to date with biofuel designs.
New Holland Agriculture is the tractor manufacturer which has made by far the most headway to date with biofuel designs.
Derek Casey

Derek Casey

When it comes to high-powered tractors and other big self-propelled farm machines like combine harvesters, we are still years 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 (mileage equivalent in the motor world) that you can get out of a tank of fuel for long days in the field.

New Holland Agriculture is the tractor manufacturer which has made by far the most headway to date with biofuel designs.

Others like John Deere and JCB have done some work on electric power.

Last year New Holland unveiled their concept methane-powered tractor. The idea is to make farmers independent in terms of fuel supply by using farm-grown energy crops, crop residue and other waste products to produce the biomethane needed to fuel the tractor.

New Holland claims the resulting fuel has a virtually zero CO2 profile – and delivers an 80pc reduction in overall emissions and noise levels compared to current diesel engines. However, there is no mention of costs to date and it is very much a concept design still.

JCB earlier this year unveiled its first electric excavator; the mini-digger is also the quietest machine in its range and delivers zero emissions.

The logistics involve a 48V electrical driveline with three lithium-ion battery packs providing 15kWh storage capacity and a six-hour recharging capability.

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But can we realistically ever expect to see battery or biofuel tillage and contracting spec tractors that turn out 250hp-plus?

Field autonomy

Darragh Mullin, marketing specialist for 110-620hp tractors with New Holland Agriculture, thinks we are still a way off but that stricter emissions regulations will continue to focus the minds of tractor manufacturers.

“The issue with some of the proposals we see today is field autonomy, which basically means the amount of hours we can get from a tank or battery before it needs replenishing,” he said.

“There is very little out there that can replace diesel for the amount of energy it can release that doesn’t ask for a complete rethink of the current engine architecture of tractors.”


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