Nuance unveils Dragon Drive! natural-language voice platform for connected vehicles
Tesla schedules first Model S deliveries; personalization updates

Sustainable Rail International, U of Minnesota partner to develop most powerful carbon-neutral locomotive, using new steam engine and biocoal

The Coalition for Sustainable Rail (CSR)—a collaboration of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE) and the nonprofit Sustainable Rail International (SRI)—plans to develop what it calls the most powerful carbon-neutral locomotive to date, proving the viability of solid biofuel and modern steam locomotive technology.

The locomotive will run on torrefied biomass (biocoal), a biofuel created through an energy-efficient processing of cellulosic biomass. Biocoal exhibits the same energy density and material handling properties as coal, but unlike coal, it is carbon-neutral, contains no heavy metals, and produces less ash, smoke and volatile off-gases.

CSR says that preliminary research suggests that the test locomotive will cost less to maintain and less to fuel, and will also exhibit significantly better horsepower output at higher speeds than current diesel-electric locomotives that pull the majority of passenger trains in the US.

CSR Project 130 will draw on the carbon-neutral solid biofuel research expertise of the University of Minnesota and the modern steam mechanical engineering capabilities of SRI. CSR plans to break the world record for steam locomotive speed, reaching 130 mph (209 km/h).

In November 2011, SRI acquired a large test bed steam locomotive—Locomotive 3463—through a transfer of ownership from the Great Overland Station Museum in Topeka, Kan. Locomotive 3463, built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1937, is the largest locomotive of its type left in the world and features the largest wheels of any engine in North America.

Locomotive 3463. Figure of person provided for scale. Click to enlarge.

CSR will completely rebuild and modernize the locomotive, doubling its thermal efficiency, converting it to burn biocoal, replacing all existing link motion with roller-bearing rods, rebalancing the driving wheels and more.

Featuring a gas-producer combustion system, improved steam circuit, modern boiler, low-maintenance running gear and steam-powered electric generator (to power the passenger train), the revamped 3463 will be able to pull a passenger train with electric-like performance for less than the cost of diesel-electric locomotives, according to CSR.



Back to the future?

Nick Lyons

Wow, just wow. Thermal efficiency of steam locomotives was never very high. Does this provide a model for future locomotive design, or is this just a demonstration of the viability of 'biocoal' as a fuel? Surely a clean sheet design would be very different (steam turbine/electric, perhaps?).

Very cool, though. I hope it actually happens.


A steam engine with re-heating stage can be 50% efficient so as good as very good diesel, but much much cleaner if well designed.

Non I doubt that it is the future of rail, electrification should be the way to go


Biocoal is carbon-neutral? Really? What about the energy expended to plant,protect to maturity,harvest,transport & process the wood?


I'd bet that a "clean sheet" design would use a gas-producer system with heat-recovery boiler and engine, feeding a gas engine rather than a conventional steam cycle. The ICE is more efficient than steam, and the weight of an all-steam boiler and engine system causes excess wear on rails.


One of my grandfathers drove a cab during WWII, he converted it to burn wood gas.

Tom Elmore

Regarding "Sustainable Rail International's" alleged scheme for Topeka's ATSF 3463 --

On its face, this scheme makes absolutely no sense -- unless "gettin' bamboozled" somehow makes folks in Topeka proud of themselves.

In the first place, ATSF 3463 is the only (repeat - only) Santa Fe locomotive of its class remaining in the world. Why would anybody in Topeka, Kansas, namesake of the storied Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company, turn this one-of-a-kind asset over to people who propose to mutilate it to prove something that doesn't need to be proven?

In the second place -- this locomotive is a reciprocating steam device, with broad, inherent operational drawbacks compared to modern diesel-electrics or other propulsion not requiring huge supplies of water.

Because of the way power is delivered to the drive wheels, reciprocating steam locomotives "hammer the rails" -- outward on both sides on alternating power strokes -- necessitating significantly increased track maintenance.

If the locomotive is to be so completely altered as to eliminate or significantly modify its reciprocating drive train, why not simply start fresh and forget the unnecessary vandalism of this historic treasure?

The whole story sounds much more like a rather transparent effort to talk incredibly naive people out of their unique, historic treasure for eventual transfer (likely after significant money has changed hands) to one of the nation's big railway museums.

Some years back I saw the state of Oklahoma cede ownership of a former Rock Island Pacific-type steam locomotive to an allegedly "nonprofit railway preservation group" in Texas - for $1. However -- once across the state line, the locomotive went directly to the yard of a commercial operation in Ft. Worth where a key mechanical component was removed for use in another, operational excursion locomotive. The balance of the hulk was then sent to a big, well-known railway museum in Illinois, in a sale reportedly involving big bucks -- where it now resides.

Any way you look at SRI's proposal, it's inescapably a story that might well go down in the annals of flim-flams right along with such classics as "The Emperor's New Clothes."

Tom Elmore
Moore, Oklahoma

The comments to this entry are closed.