Published on May 29th, 2012 | by Glenn Meyers


Coalition for Sustainable Rail to Convert World’s First Modern Steam Engine Powered with Biocoal

May 29th, 2012 by  


This is not just a trip down memory lane to visit an old smoky railroad locomotive. At the University of Minnesota, the Coalition for Sustainable Rail (CSR) is actively converting a 1937 locomotive – # 3463 – into what will be the world’s first carbon-neutral high-speed locomotive. It will not be electric, running instead on steam generated by the burning of biofuel, or torrefied biocoal.

“The CSR team draws on extensive expertise in modern, thermodynamically efficient and low maintenance steam locomotives, and the efficiency and speed that will result from this new technology will exceed all expectations of what a steam locomotive can be,” contends the CSR on its website, adding that this machine will run cheaper, quicker, and cleaner than any locomotive on the market today.

The Fuel

The fuel of choice for this enterprise – biocoal – will be produced by the University of Minnesota’s Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI), which specializes in the processing of cellulosic biomaterial into this carbon-neutral material.

Due to the abundance of sustainable forest in Minnesota and the energy efficiency of the torrefaction process (to subject to intense heat), biocoal can be produced at reasonable cost, points out the CSR team. Not yet as cheap as current domestic coal, this price range is significantly lower than the diesel fuel currently powering all diesel-electric fleets. When comparing the fuels on a one-to-one scale, factoring in the overall thermal efficiency of each technology, the efficient external combustion of biocoal makes it substantially less expensive than diesel fuel, contends CSR. (No current costs are shown for the torrefaction process, nor any detail on how much energy will be used for firing.)

“Once its modernization is complete, CSR 3463 will have little in common with the smoke-belching steam engine it once was,” writes CSR. Featuring a gas-producer combustion system, improved steam circuit, modernized boiler, low-maintenance running gear, and steam-powered electric generator (to power the passenger train), CSR anticipates 3463 will be able to pull a passenger train with electric-like performance for less than the cost of diesel-electric locomotives. In order to further prove the viability of biocoal and modern steam technology, CSR plans to test the locomotive at speeds in excess of 130 miles per hour, outperforming any existing diesel-electric on the market and breaking the world steam speed record. CSR has named this endeavor: “Project 130.”

CSR is is working with the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE) and the nonprofit Sustainable Rail International (SRI). The locomotive being used was donated to CSR by the Great Overland Station Museum in Topeka, Kansas. While it originally ran on coal, it will be adapted to burn biocoal – a biomass-derived solid fuel with an energy density and handling properties similar to those of coal, but that contains no heavy metals, and produces less ash, smoke and volatile off-gases. Additionally, it releases no more carbon when being burned than was originally absorbed by the plants that it’s made from.

“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,” said IonE’s Rod Larkins.

We look forward to the conductor’s words, “All Aboard!”

Source: CSR, gizmag
Photo: CSR

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About the Author

is a writer, producer, and director. Meyers was editor and site director of Green Building Elements, a contributing writer for CleanTechnica, and is founder of Green Streets MediaTrain, a communications connection and eLearning hub. As an independent producer, he's been involved in the development, production and distribution of television and distance learning programs for both the education industry and corporate sector. He also is an avid gardener and loves sustainable innovation.

  • Rjmuraski

    I am very curious to know if this project is working with the 5AT project. There seems to be a lot in common.

    • Steamer

      Not likely, no. I’ve followed 5AT since its inception, and it is basically David Wardale’s baby. Mr. Wardale, along with Shaun McMahon (FCAF), Phil Girdlestone (Ffestiniog), and Roger Waller (SLM/DLM) etc. are the leading steam locomotive engineers in the world today. The all share Late L. D. Porta’s mentorship, and, as members of a fast-dying profession, are (usually) in close contact with each other. That’s about all CSR and 5AT have in common, as CSR is Mr. McMahon’s effort. Also, the 5AT engine was a low-power, higher speed (125mph), oil-fired design for a *new* locomotive. CSR aims to achieve even higher speed (130mph) with solid fuel using a much more powerful, but old and reconditioned, locomotive.

  • Cincinattus Patricius

    As a member of the Marcellus Shale community, I would like to know (with historically low prices available and vast reserves almost entirely unexploited both being the case) if this experiment would be able to demonstrate the supposed cost efficiencies while utilizing NG as a fuelstock.

    They have all of my support in this grand endeavor and I’d love to help fund the biocoal system (for our own reasons, of course…). Should they need a section of heavy rail that bears heavy loads regularly, we’d be happy to host the old Hudson, though I’d imagine she’ll end up on more appropriate lines in the west.

    Good luck!

    • Steamer

      If NG means Natural Gas, the prospects seem slim. The main problem is not the engine itself, as suitable burners can easily be built; rather NG has very poor energy density even compressed/liquified. It is just not competitive with oil or coal as a carried medium. In other words: the quantity of NG needed for the locomotive to have effective range would be too vast to carry in the tender, even under pressure. This is less of an issue for pipelines. A similar problem exists for NG-powered automobiles, though on a much smaller scale -> shorter range than petrol.

  • GTElmore

    ATSF 3463 never — repeat, never — ran on coal. It burned Bunker C Fuel Oil in dedicated passenger service, during much of which it reportedly regularly sustained speeds in excess of 90 mph. As Santa Fe historian E.D. Worley wrote of this class in his masterwork, “Iron Horses of the Santa Fe Trail,” they “rode like Pullmans and roared like sleek lionesses.”

    Doesn’t sound much like “smoke-belching chugging,” does it? (Sorry, fellows — but ignorance is no excuse — and profound ignorance even less so.)

    More to the point, this locomotive happens to be the last example of the Santa Fe Railway Company’s fabled Baldwin “Big Hudsons,” and is reportedly the last American “Super Hudson” locomotive in existence.

    Quite clearly, it should be (jealously) preserved as-built, a quite modern and superlative machine — as an example of the finest engineering achievements of its era. It should certainly be held apart from highly speculative tinkering and defacto vandalism.

    • Steamer

      This locomotive was rotting in the open. That is not preservation. Machines are built to run, and if this engine blows up on a 130mph+ run it will be a spectacular end indeed. Better to die a martyr in battle than rot in a shed or yard, or face the scrapping torch.

      And yes, it *was* smoke-belching. American steam locomotives were among the worst inefficient in the (developed) world, not because of lack of technology, but because the railcos were intent on neglect. You can’t compare the locos from their glory days to what they *should* have achieved later, but *could* not due to apathy and neglect.

  • James D. Oss

    1 June 2012


    I hope an pray this works out for CSR. I am the grandson of a steam locomotive engineer who retired from the NY and Michigan Central Railway Systems with 55 years of experience. I can remember as a kid Grandpa McPeak taking me up into the cab of the locomotive where he let me throw lumps of coal into the firebox, place my hand on the throttle, and blow the whistle; unforgettable.

    Diesel locomotives just don’t have that class.

    Highball it!,

    James ‘Jim’ D. Oss
    328 N. 6th. St.
    Wa Keeney, Kansas 67672-1802

    • Steamer

      Amen, brother.
      As a kid I’ve been the cab of a steam shunter and pulled the whistle-cord. Heaven.

  • How will the CSR solve the problems discovered by the American Coal Enterprise project in the 1980’s,

    • Steamer

      From the ACE article about the 614T:
      > …its thermal performance was
      dismal, caused partially by the removal of its
      feedwater heating system (by the C & O in the
      1950’s) and by the extremely poor performance of its
      stack/exhaust nozzle arrangement (which was typical of
      most U.S. steam locomotives)

      The CSR loco will feedwater heating and the leading-edge Porta Treatment for simple water quality control, while also having a Lempor exhaust, which is the most efficient exhaust invented till date.

      They’ve really thought of all the big issues like thermodynamics and chemistry. However, the biggest problem ACE3000 encountered was money, or the lack of it. That remains to be seen for CSR. However, ACE was aiming for the freight and passenger markets both, while CSR is focussed on higher-speed passenger rail only. This should reduce funding requirement somewhat, but still ~$10mil should be needed.

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