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It was interesting last week to take a tour of Britain’s last remaining tractor factory. It’s the New Holland plant at Basildon, east of London. In the 54 years since it opened, more than two million tractors have rolled off the production line here, providing pulling power to farms across Britain and around the world – around 92 per cent of today’s production is exported to more than 120 countries, making it one of Britain’s top 15 exporters.
Tractors have moved on in leaps and bounds since the 6x range became the first models to carry the ‘Built in Basildon’ badge. Replacing the famed Fordson Power Major and the Dexta, models such as the 2000 were advanced tractors for their time – yet their cab-less, three-cylinder carburettor-fed, 36hp totally mechanical build is a far cry from the technological marvels of the T6 and T7 that form the plant’s production mainstay in 2018, boasting a power output of up to 270hp.
Such developments are what one would expect: it’s evolution. Revolution, on the other hand, is just around the corner: if we’re to believe New Holland’s new tractor concepts, then this could be the biggest change in tractor technology since Harry Ferguson unveiled the three-point linkage to the world.
Today’s tractors rely on diesel. But despite ever-stricter legislation, including the newest Stage V technologies, it remains a fuel that provokes the ire of lawmakers and environmentalists. Only this week, the UK’s rail minister has proposed to phase out all diesel-powered trains by 2040, despite providing the energy source for a third of all Britain’s existing trains. How long before attention turns to agricultural tractors and other machinery? We’re an easy target.
Farming needs tractors. And while Basildon’s total output to date is impressive, we can really put it into some perspective: two million units is the annual world tractor demand.
That’s a lot of diesel. So New Holland is looking to methane-powered tractors for its future models. Not only does this deal with the ‘dirty diesel’ issue, but it also holds out the promise of a future ‘energy independent’ farm: a farm that produces not only food, but also the biomass it needs to generate the energy needed for its operations.
The current concept model is based on the T6 platform, using a six-cylinder block to squeeze out 179hp – but with a reduction in running costs of up to 30 per cent over its diesel stablemate. A 300l methane tank allows a full day’s running time, while maintenance and service intervals remain unchanged. An added benefit is quiet running – a reduction in engine noise of about 3dBA is the equivalent of a 50 per cent reduction in drive-by noise.
New Holland’s hope is that farmers will be able to generate their own biomethane from crop residues and even waste collected from food factories, supermarkets and restaurants, giving a virtually carbon-neutral energy source from an on-farm biodigester. They’ve termed this the Energy Independent Farm™, proposing a future where every farm produces the energy it needs to power its operations, heat farm buildings and run its equipment. By-products can be used as natural fertiliser on the farm’s fields.
In this second-generation methane-powered tractor, the development model uses standard methane. There’s a 10 per cent reduction in CO2 and a staggering 80 per cent reduction in overall emissions, compared to a standard diesel.
What’s really interesting is that, according to New Holland, this methane-powered tractor is no publicity-seeking concept. Instead it’s a real-life proposition that the company intends to have on general sale within two years.
Key to achieving this will be confidence in the technology from early adopters. Then comes an investment in fuelling infrastructure to support wider uptake. New Holland also points out that a methane-powered tractor needs to be easily incorporated into its existing production lines if the machine is to be affordable.
Methane won’t be the ideal solution everywhere in the world, and for every situation. For instance, methane first requires some considerable investment in infrastructure, so several farms might co-operate to build a digester between them and even sell their output to others. New Holland has dismissed fuel cells as too expensive for now, but it’s still something that holds interest for other manufacturers.
And of course there’s the electric option. New Holland’s competitors Claas and Agco have banked on battery power, but an interesting development has come from India, the world’s largest tractor market. There, Escorts International (one of the country’s biggest manufacturers) is bidding to make the electric tractor as accessible as the motor car, launching a 20hp model that charges from a standard socket.
As for New Holland, perhaps Basildon will prove an ideal location for production of the methane-powered tractor – a machine coming off the Essex plant’s line can have one of more than 16,000 different specifications. Adding a methane powertrain option shouldn’t be too much of a challenge…