Farm technology is a constant evolving industry. I think about how much the farm has evolved in one hundred years. In 1915 fields were plowed and planted with teams of horses; grains were brought from the field to be threshed on the dooryard; milking a small herd of cows was done by hand. Today, farming is all but computerized. Thousands of dairy cows are milked systematically in robotic dairy operations. Thousands of acres can be planted with equipment that uses high-tech instruments for precision planting. Tractors have gotten larger, powerful, and loaded with additional features. A futuristic innovation that Allis-Chalmers engineers pioneered in back in the late 1950s has made a comeback in the farm scene–the fuel cell tractor.
On October 16, 1959, engineers from the AC Research Division unveiled a prototype fuel cell tractor at its proving grounds just outside of West Allis.It was built on the D10/D12 tractor chassis but had little resemblance to it. It had a bulky, box-like appearance. Three large panels covered the complex system of fuel cells where an engine would normally be. The operator sat dwarfed behind the giant fuel cell unit. The dash panel was packed with gauges and meters to monitor the chemical process and electric current. To the left of the operator were levers to control the current (for speed) and polarity of the current (for forward or reverse). Oxygen tanks were secured beneath the tractor, and a propane tank was behind the driver seat. It was a one-of-a-kind tractor.
The vehicle was powered by a 112 units of 9 cells in each, making a total of 1008 fuel cells in all. The chemical reaction between propane gas, hydrogen-oxygen, and an electrolyte in the cells produced an electrical current that powered the 20 hp electric motor. The fuel cell’s total electrical output was 15 kilowatts.It produced a clean by-product during the chemical reaction–water and carbon dioxide. The tractor weighed in at 5270 pounds and had up to 3000 pounds of drawbar pull.In addition, the tractor was silent while in operation.
Although Allis-Chalmers did not invent the fuel cell, it had been around for many years, the company was the first to build a vehicle powered by one. It’s fuel cell tractor was far too expensive to put into production, but It was a stepping stone that launched the company into a new line of products. Allis-Chalmers developed fuel cells for NASA’s space program, and the U.S. Military also contracted some experimental fuel cell equipment. Sadly, the company discontinued the division and sold it to Teledyne Corporation. Allis-Chalmers made the announcement in December 1970, that the loss of major contracts was the reason it had to cut funding.
After its tests were conducted, Allis-Chalmers donated the fuel cell tractor to the Smithsonian. The tractor is currently being loaned to the McLeod County Historical Society in Hutchinson, Minnesota, for display. If you attend the annual Orange Spectacular in that city, be sure to take a quick detour to see this piece of technological history.