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Diamond-like carbon-coated plows to save fuel by sliding through the soil


July 26, 2011

DLC-coated plowshare (Image: Martin Horner/Fraunhofer IWM)

DLC-coated plowshare (Image: Martin Horner/Fraunhofer IWM)

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Plows are one of the most basic agricultural implements and have been in use for thousands of years. In that time they've evolved from simple ox-drawn scratch plows consisting of a frame holding a vertical wooden stick dragged through the topsoil - which are still used in many parts of the world - to tractor-mounted plows that can have as many as 18 moldboards. The evolution of the humble plow looks set to continue with Fraunhofer scientists working on diamond-like carbon (DLC)-coated plowshares that would slide through the soil like a hot knife through butter, thereby requiring less fuel.

According to the Fraunhofer scientists, there's more than a fraction too much friction when it comes to plowing fields. They claim that around 50 percent of the energy used when plowing or harrowing is lost as a result of friction between the plowshare and the soil. With farmers in Germany alone going through nearly a billion liters of fuel every year to work their land, that adds up to a lot of wasted fuel and money.

In an effort to create plowshares that create less friction and therefore require less power and less fuel to drag through the soil, scientists at Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials IWM in Freiburg and their partners in the RemBob project are working on DLC-coated plowshares. They say they have already been able to reduce the friction by half, with the power required by the tractor pulling them reduced by as much as 30 percent in some tests.

Fuel savings aren't the only benefits for smoothly cutting plowshares either. Since not as much power is required to drag them through the soil farers can use smaller tractors or the same sized tractors could be run in partial load with longer repair and maintenance intervals. Smaller, lighter tractors would also mean a reduction in soil compaction that would result in better quality soil that is easier to work and absorbs water better.

Additionally, DLC coatings would provide protection against corrosion and wear. The high-durability steels currently used for plowshares suffer visibly if used for a prolonged length of time.

"A tine on a circular harrow can lose 50 per cent of its mass through wear every season," says physicist and trained fruit farmer Martin Hörner from Fraunhofer IWM.

But with soil, sand and stones wearing down conventional coatings in a very short period of time, plowshares have not been coated up to now. And although DLC coatings are able to withstand the extreme stresses and strains of plowing, the coating would chip and splinter because the underlying steel deforms more easily making it an unsuitable substrate for the more rigid DLC coatings.

For this reason, the Fraunhofer researchers and their project partners are field testing plowshares made of different materials, including nitriding steel, glass-fiber-reinforced plastic and tungsten carbide. The next goal of the project is to plow at least 20 km (12.4 miles) of ground before the coating fails.

"If we achieve that, the wear-free plowshare will be within touching distance," says Hörner.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

Diamonds and food production in the same paragraph- Wow!

Carlos Grados


Jay Finke

\"The next goal of the project is to plow at least 20 km (12.4 miles) of ground before the coating fails.\"

Plowing for 12 miles is only plowing for 2 to 3 hours!! this is no test at all !!! One needs to plow for150 to 200 hours before the plow shear/shovel/tine wears out !! Improve the life of the steel is all that will really matter !!

Bill Baerg

Plowing is a step backward. It disturbs the layers of bacteria (destroys their environment) and compacts soil, cutting off oxygen. I has been proven that sometimes less is better. See the book: The One Straw Revolution. By working with nature with a continuing attempt to understand how plants grow without us we can do a lot less and get a lot more out of our effort. Knowledge is power. We have a long way to go with our understanding of growing and just doing the same old things is not improving the soil or the quality of food. Both are suffering. Conventional farming is a product of collectivist, statist thinking that is anti-life on every level. We can question, re-think, and improve, or let the \"experts\" think for us and make laws to ensure conformity. It\'s a matter of prosperity or extinction. We can question authority, resist control, and self govern, or do what we have been taught in school.


I agree, Bill. Some of our fields are almost a mile long here, that would be 6 rounds to go 12 miles. I\'m not criticizing them, just they should start with better metal alloys first then coat it in my opinion.

Area 51

The term plowshare used in this article is a misnomer. The pictured shown is actually a \"field cultivator sweep.\" Most farmers do not use conventional moldboard plows anymore.

No till, strip till, and minimum till options are now most common. The idea outlined here does have merit for these as well as other types of farm tillage equipment. There would also be a market for this improvement in earth moving equipment used for mining, civil engineering, and general construction work.

I do agree with the earlier poster that tilling a 20 km length is hardly a worthwhile endurance test.

The idea has merit but definitely needs more work to prove the concept.


Yep, that is a field cultivator or chisel plow style.

and Plowing is indeed a necessary step for the reduction of pesticide and herbicide as well as erosion under the \"straw layer\" which is where water runoff actually continues to erode the topsoil in many cases.

Anybody hear of using \"cryo hardening\" for \"ground contacting\" portion of farm equipment? I have seen good results form this in tooling and other areas.

IMHO - the \"no till\" approach is not a sustainable one in that instead of using natural processes (i.e. plowing weeds under and killing pests by exposing them to the elements in the winter. Has led to chemical resistant weeds and bugs.

Jim Noord
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