Steam locomotive will run on torrefied biomass

By Luke Geiver | May 23, 2012

A partnership between Sustainable Rail International and the University of Minnesota is working to revitalize an old world transportation technology with a new world approach to biomass.

The partnership, named the Coalition for Sustainable Rail, will implement torrified woody biomass research performed at UM in SRI’s plans to retrofit a steam locomotive. “Currently there are no steam locomotives working in revenue passenger service (aside from train museums),” according to Davidison Ward, president of CSR. “This project is a first step toward refining modern steam locomotive technology.”

Ward, a graduate of UM, said he was aware of biofuels research at the school before he founded SRI. Although most trains today operate using a diesel-electric genset system, his team approached the school about the ability of a modern steam locomotive to efficiently combust solid fuel, and the partnership began. According the SRI, the project has a simple goal: create the world’s cleanest, most powerful passenger locomotive, proving the viability of solid biofuel and modern steam locomotive technology.

To meet that goal, the project will use a test bed locomotive the company acquired from the Great Overland Station museum in Topeka, Kan. The train was built in 1937 for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Although the reconfiguration of the steam locomotive boiler has not been performed yet, the end result will be a higher horsepower engine. According to Ward, the modern steam locomotive can produce more horsepower than current diesel-electric passenger locomotives and apply more horsepower to the rail at higher speeds. The diesel versions provide more power and torque at lower speeds, but with a higher horsepower at high speed, Ward said, the trains will achieve better acceleration at the upper end of the engines’ performance range.

The aim for the project is also to break the world record for steam locomotive speed (roughly 130 miles per hour), in part, to demonstrate the viability of the technology. Don Fosnacht, director of the university’s Center for Applied Research and Technology Development, said the project is precisely the kind of innovative research that can set the school apart. “The idea of integrating cutting-edge materials, science and engineering into a technology base that has not been touched since the 1960s is quite unique, and entering into an industry with as much potential for growth as the U.S. railroad market just adds to [the project’s] impact.”

Ward and his team will help develop the school’s torrefaction facility and in the future, Ward believes the technology advancements used to retrofit the steam locomotive boiler will be transferred to small power and heat generation systems.