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Clean Tractors and the Energy-Independent Farm of the Future

By turning methane emissions into biomethane fuel, livestock farmers can improve manure handling systems while decarbonizing tractors and other equipment.
By 3p Editors
T7 Methane Powe tractors can use methane emissions from livestock farms

New Holland Agriculture, a brand of CNH Industrial, introduced a pre-production liquid gas tractor, the T7 Methane Power LNG, in December 2022. 

As the cost of wind turbines and solar panels continues to plunge, farmers can benefit from new opportunities to generate clean power on their land. Capturing methane emissions from livestock manure is another vital clean power pathway, and it is one that can help livestock farmers improve their manure handling systems while producing their own biomethane fuel to decarbonize tractors and other equipment. 

The big impact of biogas capture

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas released into the atmosphere by fossil energy activities and the decomposition of food scraps and other organic matter. Livestock operations are also a leading source of methane, accounting for 32 percent of global methane emissions related to human activity, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

Researchers are developing new types of livestock feed to reduce methane emissions related to flatulence as animals digest food. However, that still leaves the problem of emissions from decomposing manure. 

Capturing and repurposing these fugitive methane emissions for energy use is the goal of a venture between the leading agricultural machinery firm CNH Industrial and the U.K. biomethane expert Bennamann. In March 2021, CNH acquired a minority stake in Bennamann and became its exclusive strategic agricultural technology partner, establishing future benefits for customers and the environment. 

In terms of global warming, methane is a carbon-containing gas that is over 80 times more harmful than carbon dioxide gas when measured over 20 years. Bennamann’s multi-patented system prevents biogas from entering the atmosphere by preventing direct emissions from manure slurry lagoons and tanks. The biogas is then upgraded to compressed or liquid methane, which is regarded as a ‘better than zero carbon’ biofuel. 

The Bennamann process can significantly reduce the carbon footprint of an average dairy farm. For example, the estimated CO2 reduction for a 120-cow farm is equivalent to that of 100 typical western households.

The process yields significant additional benefits. The biomethane fuel can be used to run tractors, or to provide heat or electricity for other farm equipment and facilities. It can also be sold as fuel or converted to electricity for sale back to the grid, providing a new revenue stream for farmers. 

In addition, the slurry-sourced methane fuel enables farmers to support their customers’ decarbonization policies.

This solution also helps maintain productive land to grow food. Digestate, the solid byproduct of the process, can also be re-used as an organic soil enhancer, enabling the farmer to reduce the use of carbon-intensive chemical fertilizers.

A solution for small and large farms

Larger livestock farms with anaerobic biogas digesters are in a good position to invest in the equipment needed to upgrade biogas to biomethane fuel, and New Holland Agriculture, a brand of CNH Industrial, introduced its new T6.180 Methane Power compressed gas methane tractor in February of 2022. In December, the company also introduced a pre-production liquid gas version of the technology, the T7 Methane Power LNG.

Smaller farms can also participate in biogas upgrading. The benefits can be especially important for farms that are struggling to manage their open-air manure slurry lagoons. 

Instead of investing in expensive anaerobic digesters, smaller farms can capture biogas by covering their open-air lagoons with a sturdy membrane, similar to those used in bouncy castles for children’s parties.

A covered lagoon enables manure to break down naturally without releasing biogas to the environment. The main difference compared to an anaerobic digestion system is the time. The process can take several months in a lagoon, though it only takes a matter of weeks in the optimized conditions of a digester. Still, the end result is the same: Biogas from the decomposing manure can be captured and put to use for methane tractors and other farm equipment.

To upgrade their biogas to purified biomethane fuel, smaller farms could enroll in a mobile gas processing model, rather than investing in their own equipment, New Holland says. 

Additional benefits of covered lagoons

New Holland also notes several factors that can help offset the cost of the lagoon cover and help farmers overcome issues associated with open-air lagoons.

“As a tractor manufacturer, we’re interested in the fact that the methane can be used to make fuel,” said Tom Kindred, platform and engineering lead for the New Holland Methane Power tractors. “For the farmer, covering the lagoon reduces the smell, which can be a very important factor. Stopping the rainwater from getting in is another benefit.” 

The cover can also be a space-saver: By reducing the amount of rainwater entering the lagoon, the cover enables farmers to store more slurry in the same space. That can be an especially significant benefit in regions where manure cannot be spread in the winter due to waterlogged soil, such as in the U.K.

“Farmers are encouraged to store manure over the wet season, then spread it when the ground is dry, so it is used at the right time of year when the crops need it,” Kindred explained.

Next steps for the energy-independent farm of the future

Kindred notes that the new methane tractors represent the first radical departure from the diesel-fueled tractors that have been used for nearly 100 years. More than an upgrade to modern technology, the new tractors enable livestock farmers to produce their own tractor fuel on site. Compared to the price swings of the global energy market, biomethane provides a stable, predictable source of fuel. 

Bennamann has been working with dairy farmers Katie and Kevin Hoare who are tenants on Trenance Farm in Cornwall, U.K., and the system has already made a difference.

Chris Mann, the co-founder, chairman and chief technology officer of Bennamann, said that before the company’s solution was installed at Trenance Farm, it was generating 2,500 metric tons of carbon annually on a 20-year timescale. Since its installation, this has reduced by 90 percent, to just over 250 tons per year.

“There’s 2.5 million farms in the world and working with CNH Industrial, with its global presence and advanced manufacturing capability, is the way forward,” Mann added. “We’re making farms part of the solution rather than the problem. CNH Industrial and Bennamann can be really proud of that.”

New opportunities for energy-independent farms

As more clean power technologies emerge, farmers have new opportunities to transform their land from an energy-consuming model to one that creates renewable energy and contributes to a more sustainable economy. The farm of the future is a multifaceted enterprise that meets the 21st-century challenges of food, energy, water and soil.

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

Image courtesy of CNH Industrial 

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TriplePundit editors offer news and insights on sustainable business.

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