European Chemicals Agency (ECHA)

Diesel efficiency in agricultural production


Source: European Chemicals Agency (ECHA)

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Till Meinel, Managing Institute Director, Institute for Agricultural Machinery Engineering and Renewable Energies, Cologne University of Applied Sciences

Hanover, Germany -- The topic of diesel efficiency has only become an increasing focus for farmers in recent decades, following earlier decades of concentrating above all on timely and high quality performance of work with modern agricultural machinery and equipment. The discussion on diesel efficiency, which is still topical today, was triggered not only by rising fuel costs, but also by the environmental policy specifications for reducing exhaust gases that have been addressing mobile machinery too since the adoption of the EU Directive 97/68/EC in 1997.

Since then, successful technical implementation of the emission reduction required by law and additional optimizing of engine management to reduce consumption have accounted for a large share of the research and development activities carried out by manufacturers of engines, tractors and self-propelled harvesting machinery. Current findings from both farming and agricultural machinery practice and research show that simply optimizing the internal combustion engine further will not be itself lead to substantial increases in diesel efficiency. Instead, a holistic approach is expedient here, one that examines the question over a number of different stages, such as e.g. process optimizing of the complete drive train, optimizing the working processes within a machine, the overall machine, the machine system, and finally the complete agricultural production process. This fundamental idea is developed here with the aid of agricultural machinery developments that have won medals at Agritechnica this year.

One example of successfully optimizing the process of a drive train is the hybrid telescope from Merlo. According to the information supplied by the manufacturer, the electro-hybrid system implemented in this machine makes it possible to reduce the driving power of the diesel engine from ≥100 kW to 56 kW and, depending on the work cycle, to increase the diesel efficiency by up to 30%. The use of such systems increases both drive efficiency and the process efficiency thanks to improved controllability and adjustability of the drive.

Another Gold Medal winner at Agritechnica 2013 is the “Airsep” system from Grimme. This new development translates the optimizing of work processes within a machine into practice. The system introduced for separating impurities pneumatically during potato harvesting allows not only greater throughput, but also an increase in diesel efficiency by avoiding energy-consuming soil separation at boundary locations.

The new “Axmat” development from Rauch in cooperation with the measuring and instrumentation technology specialist MSO is a successful example of optimizing an overall machine. With the aid of a microwave sensor the system is able to identify and record the fertilizer distribution of a disc fertilizer spreader online and to regulate the setting parameters depending on the respective fertilizer variety and the working width. In this way the machine automatically ensures optimal distribution of the mineral fertilizer. The contribution to energy saving made by this system lies above all in the improved fertilizer efficiency, coupled with higher yield security achieved through compensating weather and fertilizer batch influences.

Yet a further step in the direction of improved diesel efficiency is achieved by optimizing the implement–tractor machinery system. The ICT system (Implement Controls Tractor) presented by CLAAS, which has won a Silver Medal at Agritechnica, optimizes both working processes and the performance of tractor-implement combinations. With the example of a machinery system consisting of a square baler and a tractor, CLAAS demonstrates the tractor control on the basis of the machine assignment parameters of the mounted implement.

In the past years there have been many successful development approaches to optimize tractor-machinery combinations, some of which have won Agritechnica medals. Examples that may be mentioned here are the “intelligent self-loading trailer combination” from Alois Pöttinger Maschinenfabrik and the “John Deere Tractor-Implement Automation”, which received Silver Medals in 2009. In 2011 the award was won by the “Potato Suite” system from Grimme.

These developments have been made possible by the creation and practical application of an industry-wide standard for data communication (ISOBUS – Standard ISO 11783). The decades of struggling to structure this standard in the international agricultural machinery industry represent an unrivalled success story for the benefit of customers. Despite the very encouraging development of ISOBUS applications in recent years, we are confronted with an industry-policy dilemma here. Products from small and medium-sized companies are to control products built by global groups. One could say, “David is to control Goliath”. This is where we see a major opportunity for the agricultural machinery and equipment industry and its customers, but also a risk if the major companies use their power to create disadvantages for medium-sized companies and their products by setting up digital barriers.

The greatest effects for improving diesel efficiency can be achieved if individual process steps or the complete production process are optimized. I should now like to present a few examples from the field of crop production.

Expedient structuring of crop rotation and use of herbicides: Farmers need to weigh up thoroughly whether short-term savings in diesel resulting from greater use of herbicides are justified when set against the long-term development of resistances. Combating weeds by appropriate crop rotation sequences and tillage reduces the risk of resistance against selective herbicides too. In future resistances will lead to more tillage and cultivation being required and to higher diesel consumption, unless new active agents become available at short notice. The inclusion of ploughs in the product portfolio of leading agricultural machinery manufacturers could already be interpreted as an indicator of such a development.

Efficient handling of Precision Farming data and maintenance of data security: The iGreen research project running over several years that was completed a few months ago created a network for standardized exchange of data and knowledge in agriculture. A consortium with 24 project partners from the fields of scientific research and the public sector came to the conclusion that open interfaces and data contents should be targeted, instead of proprietary island solutions. Cross-manufacturer communication in the machinery fleet represents a key module for holistic consideration of the (agricultural) value chain. The goal is to optimize the entire value chain instead of optimizing local aspects [1].

The basic prerequisite for comprehensive use of the digital data collected in grand style today with a view to improving diesel efficiency is the confidence of farmers in the safety of their own data. Against the topical background of revelations concerning data abuse by international intelligence services, it is understandable if farmers express reservations about entrusting their commercially sensitive data to private-sector internet servers in the “Cloud”.

There is substantial potential for improving diesel efficiency in the optimal pairing of tractor-implement combinations. With the aid of extensive data collections a research project implemented at the Technical University Berlin shows revealed over-motorizing of up to 119 kW and under-motorizing of up to 45 kW on a grain producing farm [4]. These results should encourage farm managers as well as manufacturers of agricultural machinery to focus more strongly in future on providing needs-appropriate power for individual working processes.

The use of satellite navigation forms the basis for further development and application of diesel-saving technologies, especially in crop production. Two examples deserve mention here:

Machinery and equipment for strip tillage combine the positive properties of direct drilling with intensive cultivation for plants in row crops. This results not only in a lower diesel consumption rates, but also in greatly improved erosion control. The method can be applied individually and also combined. Many years of good experience have been reported from North America, where yields comparable to those using mulch drilling methods have been achieved with greatly reduced erosion. A number of machine-specific solutions for strip-till applications in Europe are on show at Agritechnica 2013.

A further potential diesel-saving application of satellite-controlled steering systems is Controlled Traffic. This technology makes it possible to implement traffic management for crop production areas. The target here is to achieve permanent tramlines that lead not only to increasing the share of productive land area, but also to improved soil structure and hence to less use of ploughs. In Western Europe today it is possible to reduce the area driven over to 25 – 40% [2]. A first step towards introducing this in practice can be taken by permanent cultivation and driving tramlines for critical working passes during harvesting, organic fertilizing and transport. This is known as “Controlled Traffic light” [3]. The prerequisite for implementing Controlled Traffic is the availability of machines with the same track and working widths, or widths adapted to the respective tramline system. Manufacturers are called upon to add corresponding options to their programmes.

Finally, we should take a look at possible future diesel-efficient technologies. One concept here could be the revival of cable winch technology with today’s technical facilities. In the second half of the 19th century Max Eyth, founder of DLG, disseminated this system very successfully in many countries of the earth. Against the background of constantly increasing tractor weights, the main argument for the cable winch principle is gaining new significance. The useful area is not driven over by tractors during tillage. This results in reduced diesel consumption by avoiding rolling resistance and slip losses. It has been calculated that up to 30% diesel can be saved by combining this with diesel-electric hybrid drives. A concept study by Cologne University of Applied Sciences is on show at Agritechnica this year.

To summaries and looking into the future, four core ideas on diesel efficiency in agricultural production can be formulated:

  • Diesel efficiency is improved by the interaction of many individual measures – starting with the machine assembly and continuing right through to the production process.
  • Optimizing the overall process of agricultural production brings the greatest potential for savings by comparison with optimizing individual process stages.
  • Farmers’ confidence in the security of their digital data is a prerequisite for extensive use of these data to achieve greater diesel efficiency.
  • Satellite-supported navigation systems in combination with electro-hybrid drive technologies allow broad application of modern, diesel-efficient processes in plant production.

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