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Combine Fire Research Progress Encouraging

Friday, March 28, 2014
filed under: Equipment

Spring is in the air, and while producers are thinking about planting, researchers like Dr. Dan Humburg are already thinking ahead to harvest. Humburg is an ag engineer at South Dakota State University. His thoughts are focused on how to keep the harvest safe — specifically, how to keep combine fires from starting during the sunflower harvest.

This is the third year of the Humburg team study, which has three objectives: (1) to understand the basic characteristics of sunflower dust in the lab; (2) to see it in action in the field and how it interacts with different areas of the combine; and (3) to bring the data together to suggest potential engineering solutions that could serve to change or interrupt one or more of the factors present when a harvest fire starts.

The SDSU researchers report they’ve made progress — and even have designed a device to keep sunflower dust from the hottest parts of the combine. In 2013, researchers installed the device they designed onto four different combines. The device (for which SDSU has applied for a patent) fits an enclosure around the exhaust manifold and the turbo charger of the engine — the two hottest components of the entire machine. Exhaust can get as hot as 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and researchers believe the fine sunflower dust goes through the radiator and into the air being blown over the engine. That means the dust is closer to the engine and often lands on the hot engine, where it starts to smolder. The device they’ve designed encloses those hot components, isolates them in a box, and pumps fresh, clean air to the areas around the hot components. It also keeps sunflower dust out of those areas.

But 2013 didn’t turn out to be the best year to test the device. as crop and field conditions were wet and cold, and there were few fires across the region. Humburg says they didn’t really get a good test of the systems. Fortunately, their work will continue, thanks to a funding extension from the National Sunflower Association. The NSA has extended the existing funding of Humburg and his team’s work, so they can get more experience with the systems they have placed.

“We plan to leave the existing installations in place and get more data from those producers. We will also probably add one or two additional systems this summer to accommodate additional combine models, and also to apply what we have learned to the selection of components that are more optimally sized for the application,” says Humburg. “Last fall was a cool, wet season and did not produce many fires during the harvest. We would like to be able to test the devices in challenging conditions to determine if they consistently prevent smolders.”

Humburg’s team is confident their system does work. Since SDSU has filed a patent application on the system to allow for commercialization, that means this system could one day be available for purchase. And equipment manufacturers have noticed their work: John Deere has implemented a system that filters air and pumps it to an enclosure around the diesel particulate filter. “We [also] are making contacts with aftermarket equipment manufacturers in the region to explore the possibility of producing copies of the system for common models of combines in the existing fleet,” Humburg notes. “We’ve identified at least one company that specializes in aftermarket add-ons for combines, and this manufacturer is very familiar with sunflower harvest issues.”

Of course, as with all research, there is much more work to be done. Humburg’s team is looking for feedback, personal experience,and tips for dealing with combine fires. Sunflower producers are encouraged to review the results of the study so far and share their thoughts online at: and

— Jody Kerzman
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