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 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!”
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