Let me start off on the right foot: I don’t claim to be a futurologist. In fact, if you’ve read the earlier articles in this series, you’ll recall that I remarked on the existence of the ‘doomed genius’: people like John Froelich, whose plans for tractors powered by an internal combustion engine arrived some 40 years too early to be commercially or technologically viable. Futurologists face a similar challenge: they don’t always get things right.
So I’m not going to use this article to make wild, outlandish predictions of things that might or might not come to pass. But those of you who are familiar with the Perkins approach to research and development will know we wouldn’t be looking to the future without a reasonable idea of what it might look like – and what kind of power might be needed, or expected, on the farms of the future.
For years, power on the farm has been synonymous with the internal combustion engine and accordingly, that’s where Perkins has always excelled: working with its original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to help them excel. Now that we are all committed to an energy transition, there’s both an expectation and a need to address the demands from OEMs for power innovation.
What does that power innovation look like? Well, for a start, it’s imperative that we seek to lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That doesn’t mean giving up the concept of the internal combustion engine (ICE) altogether. Not least because all the know-how that you’ve come to expect from a company with a 90-year history of power innovation can be put to very good use in developing new ICE technologies – but also because, as I’ve previously pointed out, ICE power remains inherently suitable for agricultural applications. As an engine manufacturer, we’re not calling a halt to ICE innovation.
Engine efficiency has always been important, of course, but I believe we’ve still got plenty of room for improvement before we reach the pinnacle of ICE performance and efficiency. For example, looking towards the upper end of the agricultural and off-highway markets, we’ve invested heavily in the technologies that have led to the announcement of the Perkins® 2606: a new 13-litre diesel engine platform that will offer OEMs best-in-class power density, torque and fuel efficiency.
The platform will offer power ratings of between 456 and 690 hp, with up to 3,200 Nm of peak torque. That maximum power and torque is of a level comparable with our current 18-litre engine platforms: not only does that provide an opportunity for OEMs to downsize engine capacity and simplify design and engineering demands, it also improves the fuel efficiency of these engines in operation while meeting the increasingly stringent emissions standards being introduced around the world.
OK, these engines are for a select market – on-farm, a power unit of that size and output will only be seen in the biggest tractors, combine harvesters and self-propelled sprayers. But crucially, the new platform is also designed to be future-proof – as far as fuel is concerned. It will be compatible with the emerging range of renewable liquid fuels such as HVO (hydrotreated vegetable oil) and distilled biodiesel, helping the industry to use lower carbon intensity life cycle fuels.
That’s at least a solution that can offer our agricultural OEMs some viable options for those large, heavy-duty applications. At Perkins, we’ve always been able to adapt and cascade technologies from our larger engines: those that characterise the high-performance 2606 platform will themselves become trends that you can expect to feature in our smaller platforms too.
Those lower-carbon technologies and fuels are exciting, not just because they employ our 90-year heritage in ICE technologies. They also allow the end-user to employ their existing understanding of ICE maintenance, service and management – something that OEMs will find increasingly important in driving adoption of new power solutions. Perkins has already taken a lead in this area, collaborating with two UK Government projects to find replacements for the use of diesel in the quarrying and mining sectors.
The first seeks to develop an internal combustion engine that runs on renewable dimethyl ether (rDME). DME is a well-established, non-toxic aerosol propellant, which can be synthesised from biomass, residues, and waste, providing an opportunity for compatibility with a broader range of lower-carbon intensity fuels. It has several fuel properties that make it attractive for use in diesel engines. It has a very high cetane number—which is a measure of the fuel's ignitibility in compression ignition engines—and the energy efficiency and power ratings of DME fuelled and traditional diesel engines are virtually the same. DME’s sootless combustion can further reduce the particulate matter emissions from the current low levels seen with modern diesel engines to allow particulate mass and count limits to be achieved with simplified exhaust after-treatment.
Our second project will demonstrate solutions based upon both ammonia and hydrogen as fuels for decarbonising heavy-duty engines. Hydrogen and ammonia powered engines have the capability to deliver zero tailpipe carbon dioxide emissions, aligned with the UK’s Hydrogen strategy. By developing flexible fuel capability, the consortium will demonstrate combinations of fuels from dual fuel diesel with hydrogen and/or ammonia to pure ammonia or hydrogen. These solutions can provide near zero carbon dioxide emissions whilst also maintaining local air quality. If sourced from green hydrogen, the full life cycle GHG emissions can be almost eliminated.
Hybrid technology will be another trend to watch. In fact, we’re already there to some degree, Perkins having launched hybrid-electric, hybrid-mechanical and hybrid-hydraulic programmes back in 2019. These lower tailpipe GHG alternatives will certainly provide OEMs with further options to lead them through the energy transition. Hybrids themselves are ideally suited to stop-start operation, and it’s also the kind of technology we’re likely to see as a growing trend at the smaller end of the market. For obvious reasons it’s probably an unnecessary add-on technology for field tractors, but it’s an opportunity for mixed-use machines or specific applications like telehandlers.
Nor are we going to ignore the big trend in the automotive energy transition – battery-electric. Perkins engineers have developed and are now field-testing a range of battery configurations that will be available to OEMs in the construction, industrial, materials handling and agricultural industries as shown at the recent Bauma and ConExpo exhibitions.
Leveraging widely understood lithium-ion technology, the Perkins batteries are configured at 48, 300 and 600 volts to a robust, modular design that’s been created with efficient end-of-life reuse or recycling in mind. Across this range of voltages, we’re expecting these batteries to appeal to legacy OEMs looking for power solutions in horticultural, vineyard and hobby tractors. But they’re also designed to attract the new entrants to the agricultural power market: the agtech innovators pioneering the use of smaller, autonomous vehicles – or even ‘swarms’ of robots – that will be weeding, spraying and monitoring tomorrow’s crop fields.
There’s one more trend to address – and it’s possibly one of the most important: technology and knowledge transfer. How can we support OEMs to find ways to integrate new platforms like the 2606, the various hybrid solutions, or electric batteries?
As ever, at Perkins we’re already on the case. Our Customer Machine Engineering Team (CMET) is always available to steer projects from concepts, to prototypes, to fully tested machine – ensuring that OEMs can take advantage of these emerging trends with sufficient time and understanding to incorporate them in new product developments and continuous improvement programmes, ready to meet the demands and expectations of their customers.
And across all these trends, there’s one thing in common: not just that Perkins has already identified them and is working to find viable solutions that will allow OEMs to use them, but that each of them – battery technology, hybrids, alternative fuels – still has massive potential for innovation and further development.
At Perkins, we’re committed to exploring that potential: making the most of these trends, and being ready for those that are yet to emerge.
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