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Hydrogen-powered tractor - New Holland's NH² fuel cell tractor

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article image Hydrogen-powered tractor - New Holland's NH² fuel cell tractor

New Holland's NH² fuel cell tractor - the first hydrogen-powered tractor to be shown by any tractor manufacturer – has had its first public showing at SIMA in Paris, France.

The NH² which has won the prestigious Gold Medal at the SIMA Innovation Awards in 2009, the first in New Holland’s history, is based on a T6000 tractor and runs on hydrogen and oxygen and produces nothing but water.

Essentially, a fuel cell works a bit like a giant battery, with a pair of electrodes surrounded by an electricity-conducting solution. Hydrogen (stored at 350bar pressure in a tank under the bonnet) is passed over one electrode, while oxygen (from the air pump) is passed over the other.

The NH² uses a catalyst on the surface of a membrane extracts electrons from hydrogen gas, allowing electrons to pass through an external circuit and create electricity. Once on the other side of the membrane, hydrogen recombines with electrons and oxygen to create water.

The electric current generated then passes to a pair of electric motors, one to drive the rear and front axles and the other to run the pto and auxiliary services.

The NH²'s fuel cell generates 106hp and sends the power via a splitter to the four wheels. There's no gearbox or clutch and increasing speed simply involves generating more power from the fuel-cell. Going into reverse is easy - you simply flick the shuttle lever, which in turn reverses the fuel cell terminals.

What's the point of a fuel-cell tractor?

No emissions and zero reliance on fossil fuels are the main attractions. That may not be that important now, but in 10 or 20 years they're likely to be essential qualities for any vehicle.

Until now, hydrogen fuel cells have been prohibitively expensive due to the platinum they contain. But fuel cells have already been developed which use alternatives and the next step is to reduce the platinum content in the rest of the cell.

The dream of a hydrogen-powered utopia has been thwarted by boring practicalities. The lack of a national hydrogen distribution system has prohibited automotive manufacturers from using this technology. But, according to New Holland’s global marketing manager Pierre Lahutte, this is where the tractor market differs.

Of course you still have to use electricity to electrolise water into hydrogen and oxygen in the first place, but this is where New Holland's energy-independent farm concept comes in.

The concept idea is that farmers will be able to produce their own compressed hydrogen from water electrolysis and store it on farm using with electricity generated via renewable sources, like biogas, solar or wind.

Also, it's easier to stick a hydrogen tank under a tractor bonnet rather than in a car - there's simply more space.

What's it like to drive?

Up in the passenger's seat the tractor seems a lot quicker than a standard T6000, with a faster reaction when the foot throttle is depressed. In fact engineers say that, on a straight track, acceleration is enough to shove you to the back of your seat.

In the cab, the tractor is eerily silent. In fact the only sound is the electric motor working, which is a bit like the noise a large radio-controlled tractor makes. And when it's stationary there is no noise at all, as it doesn't need to idle.

Essentially, losing the combustion engine could lead to a redesign of the architecture of a typical tractor. The usual vertical exhaust pipe is gone - all you can see is a small pipe under the cab that lets the water (the only by-product of the fuel cell) out.

Instead of the standard rotating beacon, the cab is topped-off by a strip of LEDs which "chases" round the edge of the roof. These modifications could be added to ranges already in production, before the launch of the fuel-cell tractors.

When and how much?

At this stage, no price tags can be given. The real question is to how expensive fuel cells will prove to be in 2015. "All the technology is there and companies are already using it. It's only the cost of the components that are prohibitive," says Mr Lahutte.

But put these into mass production and cost could reduce dramatically, he adds. "It all depends on how the automotive industry adopts the technology."

There's no real limit in terms of horsepower, though. "The bottom line comes down to payback. It's just a case of stacking cells to produce the amount required."

We have a second-generation prototype already waiting in the lines, and expected on farm in 2010, with plans to have NH2 production models by 2013-15.  

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