John Deere goes greener with new all-electric tractor

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The SESAM lithium-ion-battery-powered tractor: one agribusiness manufacturer's vision of a zero-emissions future.

When it comes to electrifying vehicles, tractors are terrific candidates. Typically, they’re operated over short distances and housed in the same place overnight, making for easy charging. Eco-friendliness aside, electric motors can generate the kind of torque these hardworking farm vehicles need to do the job, and are relatively low-maintenance compared with their diesel-drinking counterparts.

Perhaps the only surprise, really, is that it took so long to come up with a workable electric version.

While US tractor manufacturer John Deere has had an electric kids’ model out for some time, the grown-up version has only just become a reality.The SESAM electric tractor is powered by a massive bank of lithium-ion batteries, packed in under the hood.

John Deere has based its new, all-electric prototype on the SESAM – ‘Sustainable Energy Supply for Agricultural Machinery’ concept. It’s the first tractor to be powered entirely by lithium-ion batteries, the type used in most everyday smartphones.

“(The tractor) has the features and functionality of a ‘traditional’ tractor while providing the benefits of electric power,” John Deere stated in the promotional video for the prototype, also stressing that it is “carbon-neutral and doesn’t produce emissions”.

The new prototype is a key element of John Deere's vision of the “energy-autonomous farms of the future”.

“With the SESAM tractor, John Deere takes another step toward a carbon-neutral carbon agricultural industry,” states John Deere in a November 2016 press release

On JD's SESAM tractor, motor power can be split between the drive and the power takeoff shaft.

On JD's SESAM tractor, motor power can be split between the drive and the power takeoff shaft.

John Deere

“It is in the same vein as the Multifuel tractor, which allows the use of pure vegetable oil as fuel instead of diesel (SIMA Innovation Award 2013),  and the Battery Boost, a hybrid-traction tractor based on a battery exchange design (SIMA Innovation Award 2015).” 

As yet, only minimal details are available, but already JD’s prototype tractor is causing quite a buzz, receiving a Special Mention in the 2017 SIMA Innovation Awards, the winners of which were announced on 22 November 2016.

The John Deere SESAM concept tractor will be officially unveiled at SIMA 2017, an international agribusiness show (26 February-2 March in Paris).

What’s the new tractor capable of?

“The advantages of SESAM tractor lie not just in its exceptional efficiency but also in its potential use on farms producing renewable energy,” stated John Deere France.

“The large-capacity battery allows for an autonomous energy supply and improved network integration with renewable energy.”

The SESAM concept tractor is designed on the chassis of John Deere’s existing 6R model from Mannheim, but with that model’s diesel engine swapped out for a big (130 kilowatt-hour big) bank of batteries, bigger than any Tesla battery bank, packed under the bonnet, and a handy digital readout on the dash. The company says it will have an on-road range of 55-odd kilometres.
John Deere's new SESAM tractor has a handy digital readout on the dash.

Two independent electric motors capable of churning out an impressive total 402 horsepower fuel the DirectDrive transmission. In standard operation, one is used for driving, the other for the PTO shaft and hydraulic system; there are also two other modes.

“If necessary,” John Deere states, “the two motors can be combined to provide power either to traction or to the PTO shaft or the hydraulic system.

“The combination of an electrical drive with gearing provides a similar driving experience to that of a continuously variable transmission. The best transmission ratio will be systematically chosen according to the use desired by the driver.”
On the SESAM tractor, regen braking helps to recharge the battery pack on downward slopes.

Regen braking helps recharge the batteries when the vehicle is on a downhill trajectory. When the tractor is stationary, says the company, there is no energy loss. “It produces no emissions and virtually no noise, a significant advantage during night work or close to residential areas.”

The SESAM tractor’s battery bank can deliver enough power to get you through about four hours of “normal” paddock work before needing a recharge, requiring down-time approaching three hours. The lifespan of the battery is approximately 3,100 charge cycles.

While this is not ideal, given the day-to-day pressures of farming, John Deere is presumably still honing the new model.

Checking out the massive battery pack under the bonnet of John Deere's SESAM all-electric tractor prototype..

It could be a while before the SESAM tractor is ready for commercial release, but it's heartening to see a major supplier of ag-equipment making a serious move towards atmospherically-friendly farm equipment. 

And if you happen to have your own source of electrical power generation – say, via an on-farm solar PV array or two – it could save you a bundle on diesel, which will go some way towards offsetting the cost of the new tractor.

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