Classic Design Meets Fuel-efficient Power
May 28, 2012

Classic Design Meets Fuel-efficient Power

Michael Harper for

In a classic case of old turns new, the somewhat ironically named Coalition for Sustainable Rail (CSR) announced last week plans to create the world´s first and only carbon-neutral, high-speed locomotive by modifying a classic 1937 locomotive with new, bio-fuel burning engines.

The CSR is the result of a collaboration between University of Minnesota´s Institute on the Environment (IonE) students and the nonprofit group Sustainable Rail International. According to their website, CSR plans to “create the world´s cleanest, most powerful passenger locomotive, proving the viability of solid biofuel and modern steam locomotive technology.” In addition to building a cleaner burning, carbon neutral steam engine, the team also hopes to break a land speed record for a steam powered locomotive.

When the transformation is complete, the 1937 locomotive will be powered by biocoal, a coal-like, woody plant material. Called “torrefied biomass,” this biocoal is created by an energy-efficient processing of cellulosic biomass, according to CleanTechnica. This new biocoal is said to have similar properties of regular coal without the dangerous resulting waste, such as ash, gas, and smoke. The CSR say if this biocoal can be successfully used in the locomotive, then it can also be used in other applications as the developing world looks for sustainable sources of energy.

“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 the University of Minnesota´s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, according to Clean Technica.

“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.”

Davidson Ward, president of the CSR, told MSNBC last week the newly modified train will be able to run at up to 130 miles per hour, all while burning carbon-neutral fuel.

“Computer simulations already show that the locomotive is about as powerful as two modern passenger diesel locomotives,” said Ward, according to MSNBC.

The new carbon-neutral locomotive will also cost less to run and maintain, as well as offer greater control than current diesel-electric powered locomotives.

Ward also said the heat used to process the fuel comes from biogas, making the entire process 94 to 96 percent thermally efficient.

As for the locomotive, the team has found a 1937 model steam locomotive from a museum in Kansas which will be outfitted with a more efficient fire box, boiler and other engine components. According to Ward, the team will use similar design principles used on other steam-powered locomotives.

“It is kind of like the windmill,” Ward said. “Windmills are very old inventions, but you can modernize it and make it more efficient and apply it today.”

According to Ward, remodeling the locomotive is more of a proof of concept project. However, should this project prove successful, the team could build a biocoal powered, higher-speed train from scratch, and could utilize the same railways as Amtrak and freight trains.