Tractor of the Future?
VIDEO SLIDESHOW: Students Henry Philip ’13, Andre Keiser ’12, Ali Andrews ’12, Chester Curme ’11.5, Lucas Avidan ’15, Aden Forrow ’13, Alex Clement ’12, and Paul Donnelly ’15 (not pictured) spent winter term converting a tractor engine to run on hydrogen.
What happens when you mix eight Middlebury College students, two Middlebury alumni, a 1948 Ford tractor, and hydrogen? You get applied math and science principles, problem-solving, a hands-on experience, and a farm tractor that runs on a green fuel that produces clean emissions. This past winter term that’s what happened in the machinery shop at local business Champlain Valley Equipment. Mark Benz ’56 and Dick Catlin ’56 worked with eight students to convert a tractor engine from running on gasoline to running on hydrogen. Benz and Catlin initially began this project in 2008 when they spent a semester with four students working on the same problem but with limited success. However, the groundwork was laid and with the help of physics professor Noah Graham, they set up a winter term class this year to continue the effort. It was an enormous task—in four short weeks the group had to switch the tractor’s internal combustion engine, which is carbureted, to fuel injection and shift the mechanical paradigm to a computerized one. They could then experiment with different fuels in the engine, beginning with propane, moving on to compressed natural gas, and finally using hydrogen. And for what may be the first time ever, hydrogen gas successfully powered an internal combustion engine in a tractor.
It’s a big first step but problems remain to be resolved. The tractor does not yet run with the adequate horsepower needed and storing hydrogen so it can be used by vehicles is another issue. But the project will continue at the College with both new and old faces. One student who participated in the winter term class, Lucas Avidan ’15, is looking ahead to the next challenges. “Looking forward from here I’m hoping that we’re going to be working on getting higher pressure fuel injectors so that we can get a better burn when we put hydrogen through the engine. Also, maybe put a better super charger on the engine so the tractor can run with a higher horsepower.”
Mark Benz and Dick Catlin will continue to lend their expertise to the project and help guide the students. Andre Keiser ’12 remarks, “It was great to work with two alums who have a lot of experience in the engineering field.”
To hear more from the students and the alums, watch the audio slideshow above.