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Biofuels After

Published on May 24th, 2012 | by Joshua S Hill

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World’s First Carbon-Neutral Higher-Speed Locomotive

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May 24th, 2012 by  

 
The Coalition for Sustainable Rail (CSR) announced Tuesday plans to create the world’s first carbon-neutral higher-speed locomotive.

The plan is simple: “create the world’s cleanest, most powerful passenger locomotive, proving the viability of solid biofuel and modern steam locomotive technology.” The CSR, a collaboration of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE) and the nonprofit Sustainable Rail International (SRI), plans to put its technology to the test by attempting to break the world record for steam locomotive speed.

The locomotive is set to run on torrefied biomass (biocoal) — a biofuel created through an energy-efficient processing of cellulosic biomass. Biocoal has the same energy density and material handling properties as coal, but is a carbon-neutral fuel, contains no heavy metals, and produces less ash, smoke, and volatile off-gasses. The successful use of biocoal in this manner has implications well beyond the locomotive industry, with possible uses in the developing world.

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“Participation in the Coalition for Sustainable Rail has enabled our team to pursue one of the more exciting and potentially groundbreaking research projects in the history of IonE,” said Rod Larkins, Special Projects Director of IonE’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment. “Once perfected, creating the world’s first carbon-neutral locomotive will be just the beginning for this technology which, we hope, will later be used for combined heat and power energy in the developing world as well as reducing the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels.”

The preliminary research shows that CSR’s test locomotive will cost less to maintain and less to fuel, and will exhibit greater train-handling performance than any diesel-electric locomotives available today.

“This project presents a novel approach to U.S. locomotive development, looking to technologies of the past to inspire solutions for today’s sustainability challenges,” said SRI President Davidson Ward, a 2010 graduate of the School of Architecture in the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. “I’m confident that the leading energy researchers we’re working with at the University of Minnesota, along with our team of engineers, will be able to bring this technology to the forefront of America’s energy and transportation conversations.”

In November 2011, SRI acquired a large test bed steam locomotive through a transfer of ownership from the Great Overland Station Museum in Topeka, Kan. This locomotive, built in 1937 for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, will be reconfigured by SRI’s locomotive modernization experts, then tested as part of CSR Project 130.

Source: University of Minnesota
Image Source: Coalition for Sustainable Rail

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About the Author

I'm a Christian, a nerd, a geek, and I believe that we're pretty quickly directing planet-Earth into hell in a handbasket! I also write for Fantasy Book Review (.co.uk), and can be found writing articles for a variety of other sites. Check me out at about.me for more.



  • Bob_Wallace

    Having ridden steam trains, I wonder if they have figured out how to deal with the junk that comes out the smokestack?

    The ones I’ve ridden in China and India leave one filthy. And the particulates can’t be good for ones lungs….

  • Steve Sumner

    Hopefully, the boiler lagging (asbestos-used for insulation against heat loss) has already been addressed. I understand that Knott’s Berry Farm, as well as Disneyland’s California Park are using bio-fuel (used cooking oil) to fire the boilers on steam locomotives.

  • Vanessa Carneiro

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  • Breath on the Wind

    Electric locomotives have been providing high speed carbon free transportation on electrified lines for about 70 years. It is a nice, attention grabbing headline but “steam” locomotive would be more descriptive.

    While using an old locomotive suggests a nice proof of concept, using an external combustion engine, there are more advanced engines like the quasi turbine that offers more efficiency with fewer moving parts.

    There have been some challenges to the carbon benefits of biofuel where land must be cleared of existing vegetation or it is grown as a substitute for other crops. Essentially you would have to grow biofuel crops where nothing was growing before to reap the full benefits.

    Certainly biofuel is an “answer” but a limited bridge solution.

  • Breath on the Wind

    Electric locomotives have been providing high speed carbon free transportation on electrified lines for about 70 years. It is a nice, attention grabbing headline but “steam” locomotive would be more descriptive.

    While using an old locomotive suggests a nice proof of concept, using an external combustion engine, there are more advanced engines like the quasi turbine that offers more efficiency with fewer moving parts.

    There have been some challenges to the carbon benefits of biofuel where land must be cleared of existing vegetation or it is grown as a substitute for other crops. Essentially you would have to grow biofuel crops where nothing was growing before to reap the full benefits.

    Certainly biofuel is an “answer” but a limited bridge solution.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Just began reading a book on Siberia.

      The Trans-Siberian railway runs 9,288km/5,771miles, barely less than two complete trips from New Jersey to California on Interstate 80. Trains run 24 hours a day with only 5 to 10 minutes between trains.

      It’s 100% electric.

      • Breath on the Wind

        Very interesting. I didn’t realize that line was electrified. In the US only a few passenger lines are electric. I have seen a proposal to expand to more than 70% electrified freight liines in the US and also use the R/W for HVDC grid expansion doubling down on the land use.

  • Ltb

    As a train buff, I am happy to see someone is trying to re-think an old problem. But before anybody gets too excited, the reason steam technology died out in the first place is: 1: Too much maintenance, the metal tubes in the boilers have to be replaced periodically, etc. 2: The costs associated with running this will be high…water tanks, fuel depots, etc. I hope it works, but Im not too optimistic.

    • Steamer

      1: Too much maintenance, the metal tubes in the boilers have to be replaced periodically, etc.

      This was due to corrosion caused by feedwater. Porta Treatment for feedwater is proven to reduce boiler maintenance to twice a year washouts, with replacements only necessary after several decades. This is a non-existent problem.

      2: The costs associated with running this will be high…water tanks, fuel depots, etc.

      Very good point indeed. However, water tanks and fuel depots are a fixed cost, i.e., the railway has to bear them only once. Someone named John T. Rhodes actually worked out this cost in his PhD thesis (really) and found out that coal-fired locomotives can recover this cost in ~15 years, which is low compared to the life of an average locomotive, and nothing on a railco’s timescale (several decades/centuries). How? Because coal is cheaper than diesel. Very, very cheap. Biocoal is only slightly more expensive, but still very much cheaper than diesel. The same John Rhodes is now a key person in CSR. That study did not take into account gains in efficiency to be had from the modern engineering side, which should *reduce* coal consumption.

      I was doubtful about the project too, but seeing John Rhodes and Shaun McMahon’s names on the roster in key positions gives me hope. Of course, there is no money there yet, so it may still fail, and that is a perpetual problem. But the other old problems are no more.

  • Stephen Dittoe

    As is usually the case, the pathway to Hell is paved with good intentions. In case no one noticed, this article is completely misleading, “World’s first carbon-neutral higher-speed locomotive?”

    1. First of all, where did the iron/steel come from? Perhaps some naturally occurring iron source that will use a concert of wind, solar, geothermal, and/or hydroelectric energy to transform the raw ore to a useful steel. This is obviously just a minor oversight.
    2. It is still on the drawing board. how can it be the World’s first? Oops. UM thought of it first. My most-sincere apologies to the author.
    3. Next, outside of an altered picture, how will the old paint (possibly toxic) be removed (sand blasting or chemically removed) and how will the new paint be manufactured. Just another toxic sacrifice that is necessary for the progession of novel idea.
    4. What is to be accomplished if the product or technology is never or highly-unlikely to be used. Simply put, there is a risk/reward calculation that needs to be calculated. That would be a better article to publish. Else, just another exercise to spew more of that deadly carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
    5. The only useful outcome that will be the knowledge obtained by the graduates.

    • Hudsm1000

      then lets ban all industry, science, and just to be safe all economic activity,

      • Breath on the Wind

        It might be more efficient to ban all comments but “Just say NO” will probably prove to be the worst slogan in the history of the world. It is no way to run a drug campaign, it is no way to run a political party and it probably won’t work to silence another opinion.

        I don’t agree with the hopelessness suggested in Stephen’s tone but he makes his point and so I defend his right to express an opinion.

  • Hudsm1000

    you people…. you insane fools can’t even see what a vision this is. This is a high speed, eco friendly STEAM LOCOMOTIVE. The most awesome form of travel ever devised by man!

  • Guest542

    biomass is just plant matter like algae or peat.. not animals….. carbon neutral means that the carbon emitted from burning the biomass equals the amount of CO2 that the plant absorbed… a one for one trade. It doesn’t help reduce the amount of CO2 in the air, but it doesn’t add any either

  • Heathergreeneyes

    This is about as silly as an “enviromental” reporter that was on a radio show last week. She explained how the Obama administration was moving the military to green energy; solar power for the front line troops, bio feul for jet fighters and hybred engines for tanks…….

    The hybred tank engines cost one million dollars more for each tank and she said the bio fuel for the jets is ten times more expensive.

    When asked if this was about a green agenda that might interfer with military capacity, she said “oh no, it’s all about saving money”.

    So they will save money with a tank engine that cost one million more per tank and jet fuel that cost ten times as much as current jet fuel………

    Once agian, probably that same funky Washington math!

  • Heathergreeneyes

    What does carbon neutral mean? Either it produces greenhouse gases or it doesn’t. Or does it stop every 100 feet so someone can jump off and plant a tree for a carbon offset?

    I think Carbon Neutral translates into someones funky math. Probably a version of the same math politicans use to create “savings” and spending cuts, that really do not exist!

    They will say they planned to spend $200 million, then decide to only spend $100 million and declare they just cut the deficit by $100 million……..

    I am betting “carbon neutral” is probably in this same realm of funky math!

    • Bob_Wallace

      Since you asked, carbon neutral means that no additional carbon is added to the atmospheric/oceanic carbon cycle.

      No carbon is taken out of sequestration.

    • Breath on the Wind

      Carbon neutral is like saying a “balanced budget.” Someone who only understands cash might say, “Either you have money or you don’t!” Is it “funky math” to earn $100 and plan to have the nails done for $50 … a friend does them and you feel like you just saved $50 that can be applied to your mortgage? (reduce the debt.)

  • Anon

    Biomass? Excuse my ignorance, but does this involve processing the “cellulosic mass” of animal remains – the kind that get slaughtered? Or maybe, an advanced concept of killing animals specifically for this noble purpose? I would be glad to be enlightened.

    • Bob_Wallace

      The author hid that information from you by putting it in the text…

      “The locomotive is set to run on torrefied biomass (biocoal) — a biofuel created through an energy-efficient processing of cellulosic biomass”

      The only animals that produce cellulose are urochordates – sea squirts, salps and larvaceans.

  • http://profiles.google.com/conwaythecontaminationist Conway The Contaminationist

    Why don’t you ask your god to save this dump?

  • B_Brandon

    Let’s be honest here, using the EPA standards, nothing is ‘carbon netrual’. What is your efficiency with this? Unless you are above 42% you are not even meeting a electro-diesel run on biofuels. Add a hybrid concept which is straight forward for a disel powering and electric motor and the efficiency goes up. Remember, the first word in environmental is “don’t use it”. This starts with efficiency.

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