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New Holland’s methane-powered concept tractor saves cash while trimming noise and emissions. (image: New Holland)

Methane-powered concept tractor from New Holland trims emissions, operating costs

New Holland Agriculture is ramping up its focus on vehicles that burn alternative fuels, unveiling the prototype for a methane-powered tractor set for introduction in the 2020 time frame. The engine slashes operating costs, reduces emissions and cuts noise.

A concept vehicle powered by methane or compressed natural gas (CNG) was the highlight of New Holland’s major presence at the recent Farm Progress Show in Decatur, IL. The six-cylinder, 180-hp (134-kW) methane-powered tractor should provide up to 30% running cost savings while maintaining the performance and durability of its diesel equivalent. It uses a gas multi-point system with stoichiometric combustion.

Burning methane could mark a significant increase in sustainability for farmers who can use biodigesters to convert animal waste, food waste or crop residues into fuel. The concept is being employed in Europe to create fuel used in electric generators to power equipment by processing waste materials. This sustainable model also reduces operating emissions.

“Methane engines emit 10% less CO2 and reduce overall emissions by 80% over diesel,” said Sean Lennon, tractor line director at New Holland. “The total benefits are very sustainable if bio-methane is used.”

FPT prototype engine

The prototype engine is significantly different than its diesel predecessors. A new cylinder head and manifolds were designed for spark ignition, while high temperature resistant materials are deployed to provide greater reliability. A turbocharger and water-cooling system were added, along with an electrical waste gate valve to further improve reliability and performance. Electronic controls are also being redesigned.

“An advanced engine control unit manages the stoichiometric lambda ratio and knock detection, and our proprietary software manages the stoichiometric combustion,” said Oscar Baroncelli, product manager at FPT Industrial, which designs and produces Case IH and New Holland engines. “An advanced aftertreatment system complies with Stage V particulate number requirements. Multiple point injectors, lambda and knock detection sensors were also developed.”

Using methane also simplifies the aftertreatment solution compared to diesel. It does not require any selective catalytic reduction (SCR) system, eliminating components such as the diesel exhaust fluid tank, pipes and dosing module.

“Minimizing the overall packaging results in about 90% less volume compared to Tier 4B,” Baroncelli said. “It also requires one fluid only, natural gas, versus diesel systems that require fuel plus AdBlue/diesel exhaust fluid.”

The six-cylinder engine architecture was designed to minimize engine vibrations. Coupled with stoichiometric combustion’s inherently low noise generation, it provides noticeable improvements for users concerned with sound levels.

“Noise levels are 3 dBa lower than with diesel,” Lennon said. “That doesn’t sound like much, but it reduces drive-by noise by 50%. That’s important on roadways that are near houses, or when it’s used around farm animals.”

Fuel quality an issue

Fuel quality is an issue that’s getting considerable attention during the development process. When farmers create their own methane using biodigesters that process plant waste and other materials, fuel quality can vary widely. That’s also true of commercially-produced gas. Electronic controls on the engine analyze fuel quality and adjust engine operations to optimize performance.

“Methane can be very dirty, with a lot of variations. The variety of crops being used changes methane’s properties,” said Bret Lieberman, vice president of New Holland North America. “Our engine can manage major differences in methane’s properties.”

New Holland spokesmen noted that much of the methane work has been done in Europe, where methane digesters are more widely used to power farms. Lieberman noted that there is a growing number of digesters in the U.S., particularly in Vermont.

Lennon noted that vehicle pricing may be different in North America, where CNG may be the primary fuel, than in Europe. Europeans may be more inclined to burn self-generated methane than Americans, so Europeans may be willing to pay a bit more for the vehicles since the payback time will be short. He said no pricing plans have been set for either geographic region.

Alt fuels a major focus

The development of a methane vehicle continues New Holland’s lengthy focus on alternative fuels. Working with its sister company, FPT, the firm has been producing natural gas engines for years.

“There are 30,000 FPT natural gas engines out there, 22,000 trucks and buses are powered by natural gas,” said Carlo Lambro, brand president at New Holland. “We’re also looking at propane, a fossil fuel that has up to 80% less pollution than diesel. Our methane prototypes are in the final stages of development. They’ve been tested in all environments and the results are very encouraging.”

Baroncelli noted that the engine and its concepts can easily be transferred to other vehicles once the design is finished. While the prototype vehicle’s ability to run on methane is being touted, it will also run on natural gas. New Holland is also incorporating propane into its strategies. That fuel is more popular in the U.S. than methane.

“Propane is part of our plan,” Lambro said. “One-third of the farms in North America already have propane on the farm.”

It’s not just the engine that’s been redesigned on the concept tractor. Fuel tanks made with composite materials were altered to fit smoothly into a design with wrap-around bodywork.

“We designed the tank using composite layers, creating a tubular structure that’s easier to fit on the vehicle than a cylindrical tank,” Lennon said. “It’s just as easy to refuel as with diesel and it takes about the same amount of time.”

Windows were designed to provide 360-degree visibility, with a 20% increase in the glazed area compared to a standard tractor. The panoramic design offers an unobstructed view of the loader at all times. Connectivity is supported by an integrated Precision Land Management receiver that’s mounted on a floating glass domed roof.

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