methane powered tractor

Alternative fuels for farm machinery

As the agriculture industry continues to look for ways to reduce its carbon footprint, attention has turned to sustainable fuel sources for farm machinery. We take a look at what manufacturers have in the pipeline.

Machinery manufacturers have risen to the challenge of finding alternative fuel sources for farm machinery. Many are researching and developing prototypes of machines that could offer a more sustainable alternative to farmers, with several fuel options being explored to understand the benefits and challenges of using them on farm.  


Following the launch of New Holland’s T6 180, biomethane has become one of the most well-known alternative tractor fuels. Set to be commercially available in the UK later this year, New Holland says the tractor will deliver the same performance as its diesel equivalent - but with a 30% reduction in running costs.

The fact that biomethane can be produced on farm also makes this an appealing option. Vehicles fuelled by biomethane do still produce some nitrous oxides and particulate matter, but New Holland suggests negligible CO2 emissions are possible when using this new fuel.

Electric batteries

John Deere’s most recent concept involves replacing a diesel engine with a battery pack to produce a fully electric, battery powered tractor.

The project, named Sustainable Energy Supply for Agricultural Machinery (SESAM), revealed its first concept machine in 2017 and has recently previewed an updated version. The SESAM 2 machine can run for up to 10 hours on one charge. It also features a detachable cab, allowing the machine to be operated autonomously. However, swapping a diesel engine for batteries can substantially increase the weight of a tractor, with the SESAM 2 thought to weigh around 18 tonnes. 

For those looking for a smaller and simpler electrically powered tractor, Midlands-based start-up Atomictractor has released plans to create an electric rework of the Ferguson TE20. Following a successful feasibility study, the company is developing a commercial prototype using a power unit which can generate up to 134bhp and work for extended periods before needing to be recharged.


Another option, and one currently being explored by JCB, is modifying a conventional combustion engine to use compressed hydrogen instead of diesel. Although still in the development stage, the engine is thought to generate the same levels of power and torque as its diesel equivalent.

It is also thought the technology could be retrofitted, which would benefit those not looking to replace their existing machine. However, obtaining a reliable source of hydrogen for use as fuel is currently challenging, so may limit uptake.

Other alternative fuels

As well as batteries, John Deere has also developed a concept tractor which uses an electric cable. While this is an effective way to generate power, its use is questioned by some, as the cable connection is likely to be impractical in most situations.

For those looking for a short-term fix to reduce carbon emissions, using hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) is worth considering. HVO can be used in some conventional combustion engines, with manufacturers such as New Holland approving it for use in newer machines. However, HVO availability could be a challenge as demand increases. It is also important to remember that while greenhouse gas emissions are substantially reduced, they are not eliminated.

While it may be some time before methane or electric tractors are a common sight on farms across the South West and beyond, it’s encouraging to see how much work is taking place to make it happen.

Image credit: New Holland


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Future Farming

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