Without a doubt, diesel is the king of farm fuels, but if the research team behind New Holland’s prototype NH2 tractor has its way, hydrogen could soon be wearing that crown.
When the NH2 made its public debut at the 2009 SIMA show in Paris, it was the first tractor powered by a hydrogen fuel cell to be shown by a major manufacturer. The company used a standard T6000 chassis as a platform for the radically different drivetrain. As hydrogen is converted to electricity through the fuel cell, a pair of electric motors provide 106 usable horsepower.
“The idea behind the NH2 is there is something other than diesel fuel that can power farm equipment,” says Paul Trella, product marketing manager for agricultural tractors at New Holland. “But it also ties into the principle of the energy-independent farm — the idea that a farmer, or group of farmers, could harvest the natural resources they have to produce electricity. Hydrogen is a means of storing the energy of electricity for use later.”
Hydrogen is created when an electrical current is passed through water, separating the hydrogen and oxygen atoms. That means in order to create it, you still need a primary source of electricity. Using natural resources such as wind or solar power for that part of the process would create a zero-emissions fuel. The amount of hydrogen produced on the farm would be limited only by the capacity of the system. And aside from the startup costs, it would all be free.
COMMERCIAL USE GOES MAINSTREAM
While this may sound pretty futuristic to some, hydrogen has been quietly and steadily creeping into the mainstream during the past few years. According to the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (CHFCA), 50 million tonnes of it are now produced annually. It is already being used in many industrial applications, such as fuelling warehouse forklift trucks. A few companies already provide turnkey commercial systems to produce it.
In Canada, B.C. takes the lead when it comes to hydrogen use for transportation. The largest single fleet of fuel-cell public transit buses is in Whistler, and both Vancouver and Victoria already have fledgling refuelling networks in place for cars and trucks.
In January, Honda’s research and development group in the U.S. announced it began operating a prototype home hydrogen refuelling station designed for the average suburban house. “The Honda Solar Hydrogen Station would enable users to refill their vehicle overnight without the requirement of hydrogen storage, which would lower CO2 emissions by using less expensive off-peak electrical power,” reads the company’s press release. “During daytime peak power times, the Solar Hydrogen Station can export renewable electricity to the grid, providing a cost benefit to the customer, while remaining energy neutral.”
On top of those developments, at least three major automakers have publicly stated their intentions to have fuel-cell cars on the market by 2015. So far, though, New Holland has been the only manufacturer to target the agricultural market. A little surprising, considering farmers are better positioned to take advantage of wind and solar power for hydrogen generation than their urban cousins.
In an August press release, New Holland made that very point. “Farmers are in a unique posi- tion to benefit from hydrogen technology. Unlike many people, they have the space to install alternative electricity generation systems, such as solar, wind, biomass or waste, and then store that power as hydrogen.”
WHY A FUEL CELL?
But why didn’t New Holland take a smaller step forward and propose hydrogen as a fuel source for modified existing engines instead of targeting fuelcell technology? “It comes back to efficiency,” says Trella. “When you burn gas in a traditional internal combustion engine you lose some efficiency.”
Proponents of fuel-cell technology agree. Information published by the CHFCA pegs fuelcell- equipped vehicle efficiency at roughly double that of gasoline engines. Gas engines modified to burn hydrogen also see an efficiency improvement, but it is only about 30 per cent.
So, when will farmers see fuelcell tractors on dealers’ lots? “I could see us in 10 years making some of these units available,” says Trella. But there is a lot of work to do on the NH2 between then and now. “The next step is to build a second-generation vehicle,” he adds. Engineers are starting that process now. The NH2, which has recently been making the rounds at U.S. farm shows, will soon be shipped back to Europe where it will be updated and become one of two prototypes that will go to work in farm fields.
“We know in an over-the-road situation fuel cells do work, but when you bounce them around and subject them to the natural environment farm equipment goes through, how durable and how reliable will this medium be?” asks Trella. The next prototypes will be tested to answer that question.
The NH2 has a fuel tank capacity of 105 litres, giving it only about two hours of working time. That is one aspect engineers will have to improve. “The second generation really has to deal with the fuel-cell technology,” adds Trella. “This fuel cell (in the current prototype) is four years old. In the last few years there have been some steps ahead. It’s a lot like computers; as soon as you have one there’s something different or better out there.”
Although the fuel-cell technology and other engineering aspects may change, the next-generation hydrogen tractors’ overall appearance and design configuration probably will not. Farmers will still recognize it. “It’s pretty much going to remain a traditional tractor (in appearance),” says Trella.
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A farmer could harvest the natural resources they have to produce electricity. Hydrogen is a means of storing the energy of electricity for use later