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Phil Covington headshot

Can Alternative Fuels Power Carbon-Neutral Farming?

By Phil Covington
T6_180_MethanePower - methane-powered tractor on fields - carbon-neutral farming

When you think about vehicle innovations that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the internal combustion engine is likely the last thing on your mind. But New Holland Agriculture recently launched a new tractor onto the market that utilizes just such a powertrain. And though counterintuitive, the tractor offers the possibility to tap into an enormous opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and power carbon-neutral farming.

That’s because the company’s new tractor, the T6.180 Methane Power, does not run on diesel, but instead, as its name implies, is powered by methane. More importantly, the opportunity to power the tractor with bio-methane — which can be sourced from organic waste produced on the farm in a closed-loop system — provides a compelling opportunity for energy self-sufficiency.

It’s an important development in emissions reduction, which for New Holland has been close to two decades in the making. The company first looked toward carbon savings back in 2006 under its Clean Energy Leader initiative. Initially, this focused on efforts to make New Holland tractors capable of running on biodiesel, which the company achieved in 2007.

Though a good first pass, Mark Howell, New Holland’s global product manager of alternative fuels, and his team wanted to take things further and asked themselves: What about a product that creates no emissions at all? 

The journey toward a zero-emissions tractor begins

This refocused efforts on hydrogen fuel cell technology initially, but in the process, limitations came to light on the availability of hydrogen and associated vehicle costs.  

Instead, farmers were looking for something more near-term as a workable solution — which pivoted New Holland to develop a tractor that could run on methane. After several iterations over the past decade, the company developed the T6.180 Methane Power concept tractor, which won the sustainable tractor of the year award in 2019.

Methane is the key component of natural gas, a fossil fuel. And while the T6.180 can run on compressed natural gas (CNG) that, of course, is not what unlocks the tractor’s environmental opportunity.

“Turning waste into a commodity,” as Howell describes it, is where greenhouse gas reduction comes into play. And farms generate a lot of organic waste that has to be dealt with one way or another. If animal manure and other organic waste generated on the farm is left to decompose open to the elements, it results in the release of methane which vents directly into the atmosphere.

Turning waste into resource on the farm

The waste-to-commodity value chain begins when farmers instead collect and processes this waste through an anaerobic digester (AD). Containing the waste within a digester and allowing it to decompose without oxygen (that is, anaerobically) results in the production of methane, which can be captured, refined, compressed and used to power the T6.180 tractor.

Of course, there is some specialized capital equipment that farmers would need to harness this energy. AD technology is not new, and many large industrial farms in the United States already  use large-scale digesters. The good news is that AD technology is always improving such that the necessary scale of operation is constantly being reduced. This means much smaller and cheaper AD projects are becoming viable, unlocking the potential for smaller family-owned farms to operate a closed-loop system for methane production.

To put that in context, any farm with 100 to 900 cows can utilize the technology and capture their own gas from the waste they generate, Howell explained. Alternatively, a number of smaller farms can form co-ops to capture enough waste collectively to generate their own methane. “Farmers can share the gas cleanup equipment because it’s mobile,” Howell told us. “It’s not much bigger than a grain trailer.”

Scaling the journey to carbon-neutral farming

New Holland recognizes the opportunity for unlocking this potential. In early 2023, its parent company CNH Industrial took a majority stake in Bennamann, a U.K.-based company that specializes in small-scale AD projects. In partnership, New Holland and Bennamann are able to provide a turnkey operation for a carbon-neutral, or even carbon-negative, solution for farmers to operate the T6.180 Methane Power tractor. 

In light of rising diesel and natural gas prices, setting up a digester project can instead lock in predictable fuel pricing over time, and any investments the farmer has to make will pay back within 8 years, Howell said.  

It’s a systems thinking approach. As well as running carbon-neutral tractors, farmers might also produce enough methane to run their own power generators on the farm. Alternatively, excess refined methane can be injected into the local power grid. 

Further, the solids that are periodically removed from the ADs after organic matter has decomposed — called digestate — constitute a high-quality organic fertilizer which can be used on the land. “The fertilizer is as good a fertilizer as the manure that went into the digester,” Howell told us. “It hasn’t degraded in nitrogen, phosphate or potash.” The digestate is also much easier to spread on the land than raw manure, while bio-CO2, an increasingly valuable output, is also produced by on-farm AD systems. 

When bio-methane is used for fuel, the T6.180 methane-powered tractor can seamlessly replace the existing duty of a conventional diesel-powered one. 

New Holland mapped the power and torque of the T6.180 to replicate exactly the same performance characteristics as its existing diesel engine. Also, since it takes just seven minutes to fully replenish the methane fuel tanks, downtime during the work day isn’t significantly different from a diesel tractor, either. “From a driver’s point of view, you can jump from a diesel to the gas tractor, and just drive and get on with your job,” Howell said. 

Beyond the farm

The tractor has multiple applications beyond farming too, such as hedge cutting, lawn mowing and even snow clearing — all of which can be fueled by bio-methane. 

New Holland’s T6.180 Methane Power tractor also has the seal of approval from Charlotte Morton, CEO of the World Biogas Association. “I love the circularity around the fuel being generated from organic waste on the farm,” she told us. “It’s such a wonderful story.”

Morton also stressed that harnessing bio-methane is a massive opportunity, explaining that if we were to capture this gas from all available organic wastes globally, “the potential that’s there is roughly equivalent to one-third of today’s natural gas demand.” At today’s prices, that equates to roughly $104 billion.

The solution comes to market at an apt time: Under the Global Methane Pledge, signed by over 100 countries, the aim to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30 percent from 2020 levels is just seven years away. Consequently, the waste-to-value opportunity in upgrading farm waste to fuel, coupled with the New Holland T6.180 Methane Power tractor, meshes perfectly with this urgent goal.  

This article series is sponsored by CNH Industrial and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.

Image courtesy of New Holland Agriculture

Phil Covington headshot

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

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