Alternative Powertrain on Agricultural Tractors

Source: CNH

The energy efficiency and reducing CO2 emissions is essential to promote sustainable agriculture. The main research areas are automation of tractors and implements, as well as the development and use of new technologies and alternative fuels such as methane, biofuels and synthetic fuels, hydrogen, and battery electric vehicles (BEV). It is becoming clear that advances in energy efficiency and propulsion technology are critical to meeting energy needs while minimizing environmental impact. For CNH, as a large international manufacturer of agricultural machinery, it is crucial to examine all available drive technologies to find more efficient and environmentally friendly solutions.

Today’s agricultural machinery is mainly driven by diesel-engines. The advantages are obvious. Diesel offers high energy density and low specific weight. The oxygen needed for combustion is available from the ambient air. Despite a diesel engine efficiency of well below 50 %, the weight and space requirements for the liquid fuel remain acceptable.

One key strategy on the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and polluting emission is the transition to alternative fuels, such as biofuels, synthetic fuels, hydrogen propulsion, and electrification including hybrid systems. This as part of an ecosystem approach that combines machine and "fuel" production infrastructure to maximize the impact on GHG specifically. Biofuels are produced from biomass, i.e., livestock, plant or waste that has biological origin. Renewable fuels are produced using wind or solar energy. Drop-in fuels act just like conventional fuels, working in existing vehicles and infrastructure without modifications. Synthetic fuels are liquid fuels made via chemical conversion processes, from various carbon sources like coal, captured carbon dioxide, natural gas or even biogas or biomass.

Criteria in Implementing Alternative Drives on Agricultural Machinery
Several criteria must be considered for the introduction of alternative propulsion systems.

Power and Performance, Run Time, and Operating Range:
One of the primary challenges for off-highway vehicles like tractors is to ensure that they can provide the required power and performance. The demand is different for the various agricultural tasks. The operating time should be comparable to that of today’s Diesel-driven tractors.

Cost and Affordability:
The initial costs of vehicles with alternative drives will be significantly higher than for traditional powertrain systems. This will be a challenge for wide adoption. Operating costs need to be lower, resulting in a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) in the long term.

Infrastructure and Dealer Support:
Refuelling/recharging needs to be possible in the environment where agricultural activities take place. A robust infrastructure network will be crucial to support alternative propulsion systems. Additionally, the local dealers need to provide workforce with evolving technologies and customer needs.

Vehicle Architecture:
Shifting to alternative fuels necessitates significant changes to vehicle architecture [1, 2]. Different energy sources and propulsion systems often require substantial modifications to the vehicle layout. These changes address technical considerations (packaging, new thermal management systems), alongside aiming to enhance performance, efficiency, and sustainability.

Durability and Reliability:
Off-highway vehicles, particularly agricultural tractors, operate in demanding environments and endure heavy loads. Maintaining the durability and reliability of alternative drive systems in such conditions poses a significant challenge for manufacturers. Essential components like batteries or fuel cells must endure usage and deliver consistent performance over prolonged durations. Hybrid/electric solutions play a crucial role in the development of new business and maintenance models.

Regulatory Compliance:
Manufacturers of off-highway vehicles face a tough challenge: complying with stricter emission rules while keeping vehicle performance up to par. This balancing act requires constant development and adjustments to adapt to evolving regulations. It's important to note that only full battery and fuel cell electric tractors achieve "zero emission" status (considering emissions throughout the entire process, from fuel source to vehicle operation).


Comparing space requirements and weight

In a simple evaluation the volumetric and gravimetric demand of a tractor with an average power-requirement of 54 kW (according to the DLG-Powermix cycles) assuming a runtime of 9 hour and 14 hours without refuelling, were calculated (figure 1).

Source: CNH

Figure 1: Volume and mass demand at 9- and 14-hours operation compared to Diesel (9 hours as reference)

Diesel stands out as the most compact solution. Hybrid systems with diesel engines and compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquified natural gas (LNG) combustion systems have similar space requirements. Battery electric systems, due to their high mass, are less suitable for applications demanding high power and long durations. Gaseous fuels like CNG require storage at high pressures to achieve a reasonable onboard capacity.


Examples of tractors with alternative drives

Several manufacturers are developing small electric tractors powered by batteries or fuel cells. These tractors offer significant benefits: zero-emission operation, reduced noise levels, and potentially lower operating costs compared to traditional diesel models over time. The Case IH Farmall 75C Electric Tractor, for example, delivers 65 hp (48 kW) of power at the PTO and features an electric motor that provides maximum continuous torque instantly, offering immediate response to workloads and reducing the need for frequent gear changes. Its 95 kWh battery pack allows to power external tools through electric outlets.

Some agricultural tractors can now run on biofuels like biodiesel, ethanol, and hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO), offering a renewable and more environmentally friendly alternative with a potential for a circular economy due to its feedstock. These biofuels typically work with existing engines without major modifications, making them a good option for retrofitting existing machinery in the field. New Holland's T6.180 and T7.270 Methane Power tractors (figure 2) are prime examples, running on biomethane produced from organic waste and achieving a carbon-negative footprint in terms of life cycle analysis (LCA).


Figure 2: New Holland T7.270 Methane Power LNG with liquefied natural gas on board

Hybrid tractors offer a potential solution, combining a range of features and functions aimed at improving efficiency, reducing emissions, and enhancing performance [3, 4]. A recent development is the STEYR Hybrid CVT prototype, featuring a front axle with independent wheel suspension and a CVT transmission. This model utilizes electric motors on the front module for additional power and functionality. Supercapacitors do manage the energy flow. The tractor’s 700 V connector allows electrically driven implements to be powered directly.

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is also being explored for use in agricultural tractors. Hydrogen-powered tractors offer zero-emission at the point of use and quick refuelling times, making them a potentially viable option for sustainable farming practices. In the Austrian funded project “FCTRAC” a standard tractor has been retrofitted to demonstrate the fuel-cell technology in this domain. [5-7]



When comparing performance and size requirements, different power sources are suitable for different classes of agricultural machinery. Each technology offers advantages and disadvantages. Battery electric vehicles, with their clean operation, are a promising solution for lower-power tasks. Hybrid systems can improve efficiency and introduce new functionalities on tractors. Biological natural gas production offers a path to carbon neutrality in agriculture, although limited by raw material availability. Hydrogen propulsion systems are still in research state. The scarcity of currently available alternative-driven tractors makes it difficult to fully assess their cost implications.



[1]    Mayer, C., Eberhart, T., Huber, K., Karner, J. (2023): Fuel cell electric tractor powered with biogenic hydrogen - Vehicle design and architecture. VDI Land.Technik AgEng, November 10th-11th 2023, VDI-Berichte Nr. 2427, Hannover p. 57-56

[2]    Ghadikolaei, M., Wong, P., Cheung, C., Zhao, J., Ning, Z., Yung, K., Wong, H., Gali, N. (2021): Why is the world not yet ready to use alternative fuel vehicles? Heliyon 7 (2021), 27 pages

[3]    Karner, J, Baldinger, M., Reichl B. (2013): Prospects of Hybrid Systems on Agricultural Machinery. GSTF Journal on Agricultural Engineering (JAE) Vol.1 No.1, February 2014

[4]    Hammes, S., Woopen, T. (2019): Roadmap 2030 – Ausblick auf die zukünftige Traktortechnologie. ATZ heavyduty, 12. Jahrgang, 03/2019, p. 34-39

[5]    Nöß, C., Weller, J. (2023): Fuel cell electric tractor powered with biogenic hydrogen - Vehicle design and architecture. VDI Land.Technik AgEng, November 10th-11th 2023, VDI-Berichte Nr. 2427, Hannover p. 39-55

[6]    Konrad, J., Verlese, C., Junger, C. Krizan, R. (2023): Fuel cell electric tractor powered with biogenic hydrogen. VDI Land.Technik AgEng, November 10th-11th 2023, VDI-Berichte Nr. 2427, Hannover p. 49-55

[7]    Karner, J., Mayer, C., Khan, N., Eberhart, T. (2024): Entwicklung eines Traktors mit Brennstoffzellen-Antrieb. 24. Arbeitswissenschaftliches Kolloquium, BOKU Wien, 27.-28.02.2024

About the Authors

Dr. Jürgen Karner
Technical Project Leader
CNH Industrial Österreich GmbH (Austria)

Christian Mayer, MSc
Tractor Product Engineer – BEV
CNH Industrial America LLC (USA)

Naseruddin Khan, PhD
Technical Project Leader Fuel-Cell Technology
CNH, Basildon (UK)

Dipl.-Ing. Karl Huber
Director Advanced Concept Engineering
CNH Industrial Österreich GmbH (Austria)

Stefano Fiorati, PhD
Director Innovation & Advanced Propulsion Systems
CNH, Modena (Italy)