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The Project Tetra wheel loader concept includes elements from CNH’s autonomous vehicle development program, including advanced obstacle detection that can automatically bring the machine to a halt if an obstacle comes into range. (Gehm)

Bullish on biomethane

The CEO of CNH Industrial says biomethane is cleaner path than electric, as Case demos the alt fuel in cool wheel-loader concept.

Hybrid and electric powertrains were omnipresent at bauma 2019 in Munich, with several OEMs and engine manufacturers showcasing electrified machines in near-production form. But CNH Industrial bucked that trend, touting the many benefits of biomethane instead.

“Everybody talks about electrification; however, we believe that on the on-highway side as well as in off-highway there is a ‘bridging technology’ that is here to stay—LNG and CNG (liquefied and compressed natural gas),” said Hubertus M. Mühlhäuser, CEO of CNH Industrial, which includes brands Case, New Holland, Iveco and FPT Industrial, among others.

“If you derive that gas not from fossil sources but from bio sources, so biomethane, you’re actually taking out more CO2 in the atmosphere [well-to-wheels] than you can ever do with electrified powertrains,” he continued. “That’s a logic that not yet everybody understands but that we’re going to push.”

Despite its goal to grow profitability, CNH Industrial plans to “significantly” step up its R&D investments this year, to $1.2 billion. The company plans to introduce more than 100 new products and upgrades in 2019.

Each of its various segments—both on- and off-highway—is being disrupted by the same trends: alternative propulsion, digitalization, and automation. In the propulsion realm, Mühlhäuser acknowledges that battery-electric will have a place in compact equipment, but that fuel-cell electric makes more sense for heavy-duty applications. “We believe [fuel cells] are still six to seven perhaps eight years out; in the interim, you’re going to see more biomethane.”

While heavy-duty trucks and buses are currently driving alternative propulsion technology at CNH, including biomethane, it’s quite a different story when it comes to automation. “Off-highway is actually leading there,” said Mühlhäuser. “If you look at our autonomous agricultural equipment, it’s a reality. We have farms, specifically in the U.S. where the regulation is easier and the farms are bigger, where you have completely autonomous tractors and combines. And you’re going to see the same in construction equipment.”

For example, excavators are prime for fully autonomous operation, and the application is “most likely” two to three years out. “It’s definitely coming, because labor shortage is a fact, rising labor cost is a fact, and also the accuracy of construction operations can be significantly improved with automation,” he said. All three megatrends are well-represented in the technologies showcased in the Project Tetra wheel loader concept that debuted at bauma.

Project Tetra concept
The new wheel loader concept—the first natural-gas construction machine from Case Construction Equipment—is powered by a 6-cylinder NG/methane engine from FPT Industrial’s NEF family. The power unit delivers up to 230 hp (172 kW) and 1,184 Nm (873 lb-ft)—identical to the equivalent diesel powerplant—with fuel savings up to 30%.

Running on biomethane, CO2 emissions are reduced by 95% and polluting emissions by 80% compared to diesel. Due to the reduction in polluting emissions, a simplified aftertreatment system is employed, which features a maintenance-free single standard catalytic converter. The spark-ignited combustion system also reduces vibration and engine noise up to 5 dB, representing a 50% reduction in drive-by noise. The fuel is stored within tanks in an integrated storage unit fitted at the rear and sides of the wheel loader, and filling time is said to be comparable to a conventional diesel-powered machine.

This project benefits from the existing R&D program of sister brand New Holland Agriculture, which debuted a methane-powered concept tractor nearly two years ago. And biomethane is a reality today in Iveco trucks and buses.

“The time to bring those engines into our marketable product [for off-highway] is not three to four years, it’s going to be within the next one to two years,” in the 2020-21 timeframe, said Mühlhäuser. “When we talk to our customers and dealers, there is astonishingly high interest, which should not be a surprise because diesel will be banned from city centers. This is a reality.”

The concept also includes elements from CNH’s autonomous vehicle development program. Advanced obstacle detection technology automatically brings the machine to a halt and informs the operator if an obstacle comes into range.

Cab-mounted cameras replace traditional wing mirrors, and the display is automatically linked to the direction of travel, changing in sync with machine shuttling. Voice control functionality has been integrated into the cab via “home hub” technology—a device integrated into the roof that exploits the Internet of Things to bring verbal commands to action.

Telematics solutions have been fully integrated, connecting the concept to a control room that ensures optimal machine operation. Fleet managers can communicate directly with the concept through onboard audio and text messaging, enabling the operator to fine-tune machine parameters from the cab.

Biometric facial recognition technology is used in the access and start-up sequences. A door-mounted facial scanning sensor scans the operator’s face upon approach, and a second scan is conducted from the armrest monitor for final confirmation prior to start-up.

‘Virtuous’ fuel cycle
“When methane comes from agriculture or waste management operations, you truly have a virtuous fuel cycle,” said Mühlhäuser. Such a closed-loop cycle sees methane-powered wheel loaders help produce the fuel from waste products and renewable sources that ultimately powers them—delivering cyclical CO2-neutral production. The process particularly suits wheel loaders employed in waste handling or on farms.

Biomethane can be produced from a mix of domestic organic waste, waste food from industrial food production, restaurants, as well as from waste biomass products such as wood chippings, animal waste, and specifically-grown energy crops and waste plant matter. These inputs are fed into a biodigester where they’re heated and begin to break down, generating biogases—including biomethane—in a two-stage fermentation process that lasts about 60 days. The gases are eventually refined to produce fuel-grade biomethane.

For operations that cannot produce their own biomethane, the wheel loader concept can be powered by “conventional network” natural gas. “We’re firmly convinced that biomethane is going to be a reality in the off-highway sector,” Mühlhäuser said.

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