Mechanizing a Green Movement

Equipment manufacturing titans John Deere and CNH Global have expanded biodiesel blend allowances in their agricultural and construction equipment. EPM talks to both companies about how they arrived at endorsing the biofuel.
By Bryan Sims | February 11, 2008
What began as a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution-fashioning polished-steel plows that allowed pioneer farmers to cut clean furrows through sticky Midwest prairie soil in the late 1800s-has evolved into a multi-billion dollar industry for two of the world's leading agricultural and construction equipment manufacturers: John Deere and CNH Global. Fast-forward to 2008, where the hype surrounding renewable fuels and energy in mainstream America has created a proverbial bandwagon for people who are interested in decreasing the country's dependence on foreign oil to hop on. Undeterred, John Deere and CNH haven't gotten on the bandwagon; they backed up to it and have literally been pulling it along.

New Holland and Case IH (International Harvester), which along with CNH Global are owned by Fiat Group, an automobile and engine manufacturer based in Turin, Italy, have extended recommendations for use of B100 on even more of its farm equipment models, including in electronic injection engines with common rail technology. In 2006, New Holland was the first original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to announce the support of B20 in all of its diesel engines. Overall, nearly 80 percent of New Holland's line of tractors and branded products with diesel engines are now B100 compatible. In addition to B100, Case IH also supports B20 use in more than 90 percent of the models it sells in North America and Europe. "For us, the reliability of our equipment is absolutely of utmost importance," says Don Reiser, Case IH director of tractor product management. "We have to make sure that the use of a different fuel won't cause any problems."

Similarly, John Deere Power Systems officially clarified its position on the use of B20. In 2001, John Deere approved general use of B5. In 2005, it was the first to factory fill all the tractors and combines that rolled out of its factories in Waterloo, Iowa and East Moline, Ill., with B2. While B5 is the manufacturer's preferred blend, biodiesel concentrations up to B20 can be used in John Deere engines through U.S. EPA Tier 3/Stage III A models, including all nonemissions-certified engines.

Both companies agree that by upgrading to biodiesel blends they have gained widespread appeal from their customer base. "It's obviously of great interest to the part of our customer base that produces the feedstock for biodiesel," says Don Borgman, director of agricultural industry relations for John Deere. "The rest of our customer base recognizes the environmental and security benefits that come from biodiesel. The interest among all of our customers is pretty high on biofuels, no question."

Although it played a role, making its equipment more appealing to farmers wasn't the sole impetus behind the decisions made by John Deere and CNH. Rather, by increasing biodiesel usage in farm equipment, the companies also aimed to make cleaner burning fuels more accessible in agricultural, commercial and industrial markets. "Our view is that it's very positive from a national security and energy standpoint," Borgman says. "I think the tough part would be to find reasons for us not to do something like this; not to look for reasons why we support biodiesel."

As they recognize the benefits of biodiesel usage and are driven to increase its use in agricultural and construction equipment markets, John Deere and CNH continue to conduct extensive research to determine the effects of biodiesel use on their customer base.

Behind-the-Scenes Testing
Although John Deere and CNH are no strangers to diesel engine technology, the research process prior to supporting biodiesel in farm, industrial, construction and commercial equipment is a crucial component to ensure credibility. They also wanted to be able to better inform their customer base about the handling, usage, performance and storage issues that come with using biodiesel. In-house laboratory work on engines is one method to evaluate the degree of wear-and-tear biodiesel causes on engines. However, practical performance-based analysis of biodiesel has been going strong as well. "We are committed to providing equipment that is compliant with biodiesel use, and to provide top-rate biodiesel support for our customers," says Paul Trella, director of product marketing for New Holland Agricultural Tractors. "As the use of biodiesel continues to gain greater acceptance and the infrastructure for providing a quality product to consumers expands, we are ready so the customer has a choice to continue with standard off-road diesel or switch to a blend of biodiesel."

Since 2005, New Holland has been involved in a collaborative biodiesel demonstration project with Pennsylvania State University's College of Agricultural Sciences, a land grant university. For the past two years, PSU's Agricultural Sciences department has been tasked to determine the effects of running B100 in two unmodified New Holland tractors. After extensive use on PSU's farm fields, neither of the machines showed any sign of extra wear, according to Glen Cauffman, PSU's farm operations and services manager. "The research involved keeping a very accurate log of the kinds of operations that tractors do; keeping comments from the operators (smoke or no smoke, effects on power, effects on performance, etc.)," Cauffman says. "We began doing very frequent engine oil analysis as well. You can foresee engine problems in today's extensive oil analysis."

About five years ago, Cauffman and his staff began an aggressive program to increase biodiesel usage in university fleet vehicles, which culminated in the use of pure biodiesel to power tractors. In 2006, the university converted all of its diesel equipment for B20 use after the college's farm operations and services began buying B100 and were splash-blending it with petroleum diesel to achieve a B20 blend. Cauffman and his staff garnered media attention for their biodiesel research efforts and were approached by New Holland. Cauffman decided to stretch the envelope even further, in collaboration with New Holland, by operating two tractors on B100. The goal was to learn what owners of diesel equipment can expect when they choose to be independent of petroleum. The cooperative demonstration project with New Holland will end when the department disassembles the engines to measure internal effects that could be attributed to biodiesel, according to Cauffman. "The idea now is to get lots of hours on them," he says. The goal is to accumulate at least 500 hours a year on the New Holland equipment before the department analyzes the engine parts. "It's more performance-based evaluations we're doing now," he adds.

PSU's College of Agricultural Sciences has been using and concurrently studying New Holland tractors, combines, forage harvesters and windrowers that have two years worth of farming tests. "We will be pulling injectors from all the tractors and photographing them microscopically to see if there's build-up of 'coke'," Cauffman says. "Eventually, the engines will be taken apart to see the pistons, and to see if there's any build-up of carbon or any other wear compared with other engines running on petroleum."

Case IH also continues to be involved in multiple cooperative testing efforts with Cummins Inc., one of Case IH's joint-venture partners, which approved the use of B20 in many of its engines in March 2007. According to Reiser, it's not necessarily left up to OEMs such as Cummins to decide that equipment manufacturers should adapt biodiesel. Rather, it's a consortium of OEMs and equipment manufacturers meeting in the middle taking a course of action as prescribed by each. "There's demand from all of [Cummins'] users for biodiesel," Reiser says. "I think they've probably been pushed by all of their engine users, including us, to run the tests and to give us the approval."

For John Deere, much of the testing of biodiesel is conducted in-house since the company manufactures the majority of its engines for its line of equipment. The company has been researching the affects of different kinds of biodiesel feedstocks (soy, canola or rapeseed) on its engines for many years. Though methodical research continues within John Deere, diesel research in general doesn't occur in a vacuum. There's an open forum on research within the diesel community, Borgman says. "The test protocols are extremely strict and they require a great deal of efficacy so that we can have confidence in what the outcomes of those test results are," he says.

Knowledge is Key
Both manufacturing companies stress the importance of using high-quality biodiesel produced to ASTM D6751 standards. John Deere and CNH strongly encourage users of their equipment to purchase biodiesel blends from BQ-9000 certified marketers and to source it from BQ-9000 accredited producers, as certified by the National Biodiesel Board. "It's important to use high-quality biodiesel produced to ASTM D6751 standards from a reputable supplier who can offer consistent fuel quality to ensure optimum performance and engine durability," Trella emphasizes. "It's imperative that consumers use nothing less than this quality. With the use of approved fuels, it's also essential that biodiesel be used in compliance with proper handling, storage and maintenance requirements to maintain the integrity of the biofuel."

Neither equipment provider includes malfunctions associated from the effects of biodiesel misuse as part of their warranty packages. For example, John Deere would not be responsible for a mechanical malfunction due to a customer's malpractice of biodiesel. To help allay any potential problems, John Deere developed a fuel conditioner that it recommends when using lower biodiesel blends and requires when using B20 blends and above. "As a result of that, as long as you're running fuel that's in spec and the fuel doesn't cause the failure, we warranty our products whether you're running straight petroleum diesel, B5, B20 or whatever," Borgman says. "That position hasn't changed for years."

As a resource for their customers, the equipment manufacturers have provided a spate of online literature available at their retail outlets and on the Internet in regard to procuring, handling, storing and using various biodiesel blends. "What we're trying to do is make sure we have a good a handle on those different characteristics so that when we make those recommendations we know exactly of what we speak," Borgman says. "As we get more confidence from our test data we will continue to release updates on a continual basis."
To learn more about John Deere's biodiesel research and available products compatible to the biofuel, visit

Bryan Sims is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. Reach him at or (701) 738-4962
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