Bay Journal

Poo powered tractor plows forward

Methane from manure

  • By Whitney Pipkin on July 31, 2015
Intrepid reporter Whitney Pipkin drives New Holland's methane tractor prototype in Turin, Italy, with the tractor's program manager, Stefano Fiorati.  (photo courtesy CNH Industrial) Farmer Luca Remmert with the engine that helps turn manure into energy at La Bellotta Farm in Turin, Italy. (photo by Whitney Pipkin) This tractor contains nine methane fuel tanks that are filled in about 10 minutes at a nearby pump station, providing the energy for half a day's work on the farm.  (photo by Whitney Pipkin)

We’ve written plenty about the power of manure, how innovators across the region are turning its excess into energy and even profits. But what if the power produced by a manure-to-energy plant was used to not only keep the lights on but also plow the fields?

Enter the methane-fueled tractor.

This pie-in-the-sky piece of machinery is becoming a reality in parts of Europe where fuel costs, stringent emissions regulations and the lure of an “energy independent” farm are driving it closer to production.

During a recent trip to Europe, I had the chance to visit a farm outside Turin, Italy, where this tractor, made by CNH Industrial’s New Holland factory nearby, is being used each day. (They even let me take it for a spin.)

The more than 1,000-acre La Bellotta Farm is not like others in the region in that its main crop is energy — produced by an expansive methane digester that was built five years ago. The farm has about 9,000 organic laying hens for eggs and selectively harvests trees and crops (corn and triticale) that are added to manure to feed the digester. The farm raised cattle for beef (hence the manure inspiration) 15 years ago, but now trades liquid manure from another farm for its digested manure product, used as fertilizer.

One of the founding families of the Fiat car company (now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, a sister company to CNH Industrial, which makes the tractor) has owned the farm for generations. That makes its land ripe for the technological innovations that are bringing it closer to becoming an energy independent farm.

It’s also a great place to test drive what could be the tractor of the future. (I won’t go into my tractor driving skills here, but they are immense.)

If this machine were to come out of the Chesapeake Bay region, it would likely be inspired by our excess of manure, which presents water quality problems when it runs off of saturated soils. That’s also playing into its production in Europe.

“The European Union is hot on what we call runoff as well,” Laura Overall, a UK-based spokeswoman for CNH, said during a tour of the farm. “You’re not allowed to spread slurry at certain times of year and have to be more careful closer to the water.”

Spreading the digested byproduct of the energy plant, rather than liquid manure, is better for local water quality and has replaced commercial fertilizers on the farm. Even after replacing the farm’s cows with chickens, the farm owners found it more profitable to transform its raw products into energy that can run the farm and be sold onto the power grid.

“It was a conscious economic decision for them to invest in this (infrastructure) and produce this energy,” Overall said.

Though the farm produces methane and has a methane-fueled tractor, its energy process has not quite come full circle. The methane digester currently runs an engine that produces energy to power the regional grid. In order to pump that methane directly into the tractor, it would need to add another refining step to make it fuel-grade, which would cost about 500,000 Euros.

Instead, the farmers drive the tractor to a nearby methane refueling station, which are more prevalent in Europe than here. While adding the ability to refine methane would make the farm energy independent, it does not yet make economic sense.

Farm owner Luca Rammert said the Italian government is mulling subsidies that would add incentives for methane power and manure-to-energy programs, which have driven growth in these sectors in Germany and other European countries.

These countries are also ahead of the United States on curbing emissions from commercial vehicles like tractors, and New Holland sees the methane tractor as one of the ways to comply with incoming regulations. As a fuel source, methane costs less than diesel, has lower emissions and doesn’t require an after treatment on the engine to meet the EU’s more stringent emissions requirements.

“We have a clear business opportunity,” said Stefano Fiorati, project manager of New Holland’s methane tractor program. “We are quite close to final development phase and almost ready for possible production.”

The company is working to build a small fleet of a half-dozen of these methane tractors to be field tested over the next year. The tractor can be used like any other of its size with attachments like a front loader and plow, and it has so far competed with comparable tractors in tests. Read more about the tractor here.

For those who can’t make it out to the farm but can get as close as Italy, the methane tractor is also featured on the roof of New Holland’s pavilion at the 2015 World Expo (today’s World’s Fair) in Milan through October. The international company is one of the sponsors of the Expo, which is aimed at feeding a growing planet with innovations like this.

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About Whitney Pipkin
Whitney Pipkin, writes about food, agriculture and the environment. She lives in Alexandria, VA, and is a fellow of the Institute for Journalists of Natural resources and blogs at thinkabouteat.com.
Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin

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A Documentary Inspired by William W. Warner’s 1976 Exploration of Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay.

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