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Project turns wind into hydrogen

The first hint that this yellow Caterpillar tractor isn't your ordinary mechanized farm workhorse is the fiberglass-wrapped aluminum tank mounted on the front end.

Robert Pieri talks with engineering students

The first hint that this yellow Caterpillar tractor isn't your ordinary mechanized farm workhorse is the fiberglass-wrapped aluminum tank mounted on the front end.

The tank will carry hydrogen, which will be blended with diesel fuel as part of a broader experiment in converting wind power to other energy forms.

Three teams of engineering students at North Dakota State University are collaborating to alter the tractor - made available by Butler Machinery - to run on the hydrogen fuel blend.

The tricky part of the modification: to regulate the timing and flow of hydrogen in order to maintain a 10 percent fuel blend to operate the 110-horsepower engine.

The modified tractor is part of a research-and-demonstration project involving Basin Electric Power Cooperative to take wind energy, from two turbines near Minot, and convert it to hydrogen. The project was made possible by $1.5 million in federal grants secured by Sen. Byron Dorgan,


D-N.D., and matches by local partners.

Early this summer, project collaborators will install equipment at the NDSU agricultural experiment station south of Minot, which will pass an electrical current through water to separate hydrogen and oxygen.

The hydrogen will be used to help fuel the prototype tractor and three Chevy pickup trucks that can run on hydrogen, regular gas and E85 ethanol-blended fuel.

The modified tractor will be subjected to field tests at the Minot experiment station plots. "It's a science experiment, frankly," said Jay Fisher, an agronomist and director of the experiment station. "These are prototypes."

Researchers eventually hope that small-scale renewable energy production will be available to farmers to help increase their energy efficiency.

"It's a way to decrease dependence on petroleum fuel," said professor Leslie Backer, NDSU's chairman of agricultural and biosystems engineering.

Similarly, the barnyard leavings of cows could someday become an energy resource, a triumph of self-sufficiency.

"There's no reason it couldn't be methane from cow manure in the future," he said. If so, Robert Pieri, mechanical engineering professor at NDSU, added, it would be a modern version of an ancient mode of power.


"In some respects I see it going back to the oxen," he said.

Wind-to-hydrogen, if it becomes a viable option for farmers, would be a return to the days when farms used wind to power their homes in the days before rural electrification, Fisher said. His grandfather's farm in Kidder County, N.D., stored wind energy in batteries in the basement, for use when the wind didn't blow.

Before North Dakota sees its pioneering hydrogen tractor at work, the NDSU engineering students have some practical problems to solve.

On a recent afternoon, the teams of engineering students were mulling the best way to connect the hydrogen tank to the diesel engine. The connection will require a regulator to control the flow - and that retrofitted mechanism, exposed on the nose of the tractor, will require protection.

Pieri's proposed solution: a stainless steel salad bowl, welded on to act as a helmet. That's the kind of tinkering farmyard mechanics have performed for generations.

Plans call for a field testing of the hydrogen-hybrid tractor this summer, with a demonstration near semester's end, tentatively slated for May 17.

D.C. Coston, NDSU's vice president for agriculture and extension, said the university's participation in the hydrogen tractor project is part of a broader initiative to bring alternative energy sources to the farm. Another tractor at the Minot experiment station has been running entirely on biodiesel made from canola oil for more than two years.

"The tractor itself has performed well," Coston said. NDSU has a center of excellence involving canola biodiesel, and university researchers are working with partners to develop canola varieties with higher oil content.


If the hydrogen tractor meets with initial success, it will take engineers years to refine the technology to make it commercially viable. But small steps come before big ones, Fisher said.

"It behooves us in the research world to develop alternate fuels," he said. "Agriculture is a huge consumer of energy. They also can be a huge provider of energy."

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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