Hydrogen-fuelled tractors: a clean energy option for farmers

Published: December 2018 | By: Justin Law

A CSIRO breakthrough has been made in the search for alternative fuels. With unmatched efficiency, hydrogen may become the future of farming. 

An Australian invention has boosted hopes that an efficient hydrogen-fuelled tractor may soon become a reality. Source: New Holland.

THE race continues to find cost-effective alternative fuels for farm machinery – and hydrogen has moved up in the pack after a major Australian breakthrough. 

CSIRO scientists have developed a better way to convert ammonia into hydrogen, meaning safer storage and transport, which brings the technology closer to reality. While it’s unlikely the fuel will come into common use on Australian farms any time soon, CSIRO’s principal research scientist Dr Michael Dolan sees the breakthrough as an exciting step.

During a test in Queensland in August, Dr Dolan demonstrated cars fuelled by ammonia-derived hydrogen, in a move made possible by membrane technology developed by his team. “We are the first to demonstrate the production of very clean hydrogen from ammonia,” Dr Dolan said at the test. “Today is the very first time in the world hydrogen cars have been fuelled with a fuel derived from ammonia – carbon-free fuel.”

The trick had been to produce ultra-high-purity hydrogen and make it safe to transport. This was achieved by transporting hydrogen in the form of liquid ammonia and then using the CSIRO-produced membrane to separate ultra-high-purity hydrogen from ammonia, while blocking all other gases. 

“If you want to move a lot of hydrogen, you need it in a liquid form – liquid fuels are much more dense then gaseous fuels,” Dr Dolan explained. “It is very difficult to liquefy hydrogen, you need to make it extremely cold. Ammonia is made up of nitrogen and hydrogen, and it forms a liquid under very mild conditions; it behaves similar to liquid petroleum gas (LPG). That allows you to store and move very big quantities of hydrogen, you just need the technology to pull the hydrogen back out.” Major car manufacturers such as Toyota and Hyundai are already well along the path to commercialising hydrogen-powered cars.

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 Hydrogen-fuelled tractor already built, waiting on commercial viability 

In the ag space, New Holland has also been working with alternative fuels, exploring methane and hydrogen power and launching prototypes to gauge interest. In 2009, it showcased the hydrogen-powered New Holland NH2 concept at world ag machinery fair Agritechnica. Dubbed a clean-energy breakthrough, the tractor has been ready to go ever since, but the limited availability of the fuel means it has only served as a nice clean-and-green marketing tool for its maker.

New Holland’s hydrogen-powered NH2 has been waiting for a breakthrough to make it commercially viable since 2009. Source: New Holland.

But the Australian invention means the tractor’s potential might soon be unlocked. “I think before too long there will be hydrogen cars, trucks, trains and tractors, anything really,” Dr Dolan said at the demonstration. “The technology is becoming mature enough, you will see it in a lot of applications.”
The thing that might push market success along is that hydrogen promises to double the efficiency of diesel or petrol – at least that’s the sell when the matter of how much it will cost comes up. 

“One thing we do know is that hydrogen fuel cell powertrains, no matter what vehicle they are on, are more than twice as efficient as petrol or diesel powertrains,” Dr Dolan said. “So you will need half the amount of fuel to do a given job, whether that is driving around the paddock, across the country or over an ocean.”  

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