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Could hydrogen power new ag machines?

Cummins’ new head of global ag gives insights into the future of machinery engines.

Chris Torres, Editor, American Agriculturist

May 25, 2023

4 Min Read
Cummins L9 engine
SMALL AG PLAYER: Many Case IH machines made before 2010 are powered by Cummins engines, but the company is a much smaller player in U.S. ag these days. Its L9 engine powers Claas Trion combines, and its engines power Versatile machines. Courtesy of Cummins

When you look at tractors, combines and other big ag machines, you will likely struggle to find machines powered by a Cummins engine.

That is, of course, unless you have a Case IH from before 2010 or have a new Claas Trion combine. But the company’s new head of global ag business thinks it is prime time for the company to grow its ag business.

“Ag is … a very high priority for Cummins,” says Phil Dawson, who took over the company’s agriculture business earlier this year.

Dawson has been with Cummins for 14 years, mostly working in the company’s off-highway business — primarily construction and agriculture. He took over the company’s global ag business five months ago.

Cummins engines once powered many Case IH machines, but that partnership ended in the early 2010s. Today, it’s a much smaller player in the U.S. ag machinery market. Its L9 engines power the Claas Trion, and several of its other engines power tractors made by Versatile.

Still, agriculture is a key growth sector for the company, Dawson says, as it provides a more stable, less cyclical market than some of the other markets the company is in.

“If we look at sort of Cummins as a whole, globally, we're obviously more than a diesel engine manufacturer. We've invested heavily in alternative technologies. And we're looking at markets that give us sort of ongoing and consolidated diesel business, and markets in which we think the adoption of other technologies are going to confer. So, I think when we look at ag … we look at that as a market that's probably going to give us … stable growth in clean diesel," he says.

Dawson estimates that about 1 million ag machines around the globe are powered by Cummins engines among its nearly two-dozen OEM partners, much of it outside tractors and combines. In South America, for example, many sprayers are powered by Cummins engines.

Smaller OEMs in India, he says, also use Cummins engines.

"I think we've got a good cross section of business globally," Dawson says. "I think if you look at the applications we power, they are sort of across the market, tractors, combines, sort of specialty ag."

Bridge to electric

Diesel is still king when it comes to powering large ag machines and will likely remain that way for some time.

But tougher emissions standards over the years have forced engine manufacturers to make big changes to their products, and Cummins is no different, Dawson says. The company is already gearing up for the next step of off-road emissions standards — Tier 5 — which will likely be rolled out by the end of the decade.

But Dawson says it is also gearing itself up for a post-diesel future. A hydrogen derivative of its diesel engine, he says, is next in the pipeline, and it is something he sees as a bridge to full electrification.

"The benefits of … hydrogen internal combustion engine is that it still provides a lot of commonalities for our OEMs," he says. "It's a common powertrain design; it's very similar in the way it would be installed into an application and typically operated. In terms of performance characteristics, it's very similar to a diesel engine. So, we think there is a future for hydrogen given the sort of power density it provides, the serviceability, the machine integration and sort of the similarities to diesel."

Earlier this year, the company rolled out Accelera, a new brand for its alternative-energy business — including battery systems, fuel cells, ePowertrain systems and electrolyzers.

As batteries get denser, they should, in theory, power larger machines. But that technology, Dawson says, is still years away.

"I think the tech that's out there today, there's probably insufficient power density for heavy-duty tractors, combines, for example,” he says. “Things like the weight and the run time, the required charging infrastructure, makes it difficult for certain applications to operate on a farm. But maybe some of the sort of lighter-duty tractors … 50 to 70 hp, that maybe operate closer to where the grid is, is where it will be.”

The demand for more efficient, cleaner engines in ag machines is not going away, and it is a space where Dawson thinks Cummins can compete.

"I guess what we see in ag, and it's a little bit generalized, but if you look at the market globally, you have increase in population, you have increase in consumption in that population, potentially less arable land,” he says. “Then there is a drive and need in our customer base, and potential customer base for more technology and efficiency, and power. And I think that's where I think Cummins as a company, we can be effective.”

About the Author(s)

Chris Torres

Editor, American Agriculturist

Chris Torres, editor of American Agriculturist, previously worked at Lancaster Farming, where he started in 2006 as a staff writer and later became regional editor. Torres is a seven-time winner of the Keystone Press Awards, handed out by the Pennsylvania Press Association, and he is a Pennsylvania State University graduate.

Torres says he wants American Agriculturist to be farmers' "go-to product, continuing the legacy and high standard (former American Agriculturist editor) John Vogel has set." Torres succeeds Vogel, who retired after 47 years with Farm Progress and its related publications.

"The news business is a challenging job," Torres says. "It makes you think outside your small box, and you have to formulate what the reader wants to see from the overall product. It's rewarding to see a nice product in the end."

Torres' family is based in Lebanon County, Pa. His wife grew up on a small farm in Berks County, Pa., where they raised corn, soybeans, feeder cattle and more. Torres and his wife are parents to three young boys.

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