130 mph biocoal steam engines – another high speed rail boondoggle?

My grandfather made steam engines, my father made a scale steam locomotive for taking children on rides in the park and at the fair. Some of my happiest memories as a child were of sitting behind my father in the coal tender, chugging down the tracks, so any picture of a steam engine brings back fond memories.

[ UPDATE: I hadn’t realized it from the photo above until later, but the 4-6-4 “Hudson” locomotive above is the one my dad modeled for the 1/8th scale train of my youth, except his had the feedwater tank over the front like this one. Our family had to sell the train due to financial hardship after his death to somebody in Lebanon Ohio (probably the saddest day of my life). I’ve since lost track of it and would give anything to get it back, but I fear it has been scrapped. I hadn’t thought about this in a long time but the image provoked some long repressed memories. On the plus side, I’ve located a Lionel model Hudson 4-6-4 Steam Locomotive 665 with 736W Tender on Ebay, and exact match to the engine and tender my dad constructed, which I hope to buy so that I can show it to my children, and pass on the story with something to show them, along with the family photographs. I never thought this topic would come up on my blog, but here it is, serendipitously hitting me with emotion. – Anthony ]

When I saw this, all I could think of is how silly this idea is. All the greens seem fascinated with high speed rail due to Euro-envy, and in California they are ramming it down our throat at an anticipated huge loss, even worse than Solyndra. With a forecast price tag in the tens of billions and growing, it is just nuts given the economic climate right now, not to mention we don’t have people clamoring to climb aboard.

In retrospect however, anything that would put a steam locomotive back on the tracks is music to my ears, even if they ran it on used McDonald’s french fry oil like some of those hippie buses we see here in California.

Here’s the strange part, they are converting an oil burning locomotive to run “biocoal”, and somehow they magically think the production process and the burning of it won’t produce any net CO2, saying the process is “carbon neutral”.  I think they’ve left out some parts, like the energy needed to produce and transport the biocoal fuel in the first place. Excerpts from the MSNBC story

A steam train built in 1937 is getting a makeover that will turn it into a “higher-speed” locomotive that runs on biocoal, a coal-like fuel made with woody plant material.

When finished, the train will be able chug along existing tracks at speeds up to 130 miles per hour without contributing to the greenhouse gas pollution blamed for global warming.

“Computer simulations already show that the locomotive is about as powerful as two modern passenger diesel locomotives,” Davidson Ward, president of the Coalition for Sustainable Rail, told me Thursday.

“But it will burn carbon neutral fuel.”

The biocoal is based on a so-called torrefaction process pioneered at the University of Minnesota in Duluth. To make it, woody material — in this case trees — are heated in the absence of oxygen. The resulting flaky matter is then rammed together under high pressure to create coal-like bricks.

The charcoal briquettes aka “biocoal”

Biocoal has the same energy density as regular coal, but is cleaner burning, and since trees (the fuel source) sequester carbon as they grow, the system is considered carbon neutral, according to Ward.

Today, most higher-speed passenger trains are diesel-electric locomotives, which generate their peak horsepower at low speeds — about 25 miles per hour. Steam locomotives, by contrast, get their peak horsepower at higher speeds — about 40 miles per hour.

“Initial computer simulations suggest that the CSR’s modern steam engine will significantly out-accelerate a modern diesel-electric locomotive to 110 mph,” according to the coalition’s website.

I got a big chuckle out of this part though:

If all goes according to plan, they might build a new steam locomotive from scratch, which will have some modern looks.

For example, “no cowcatcher,” Ward said. “You don’t need a cowcatcher today unless you are a ‘Back to the Future’ fan.”

Just wait until they plow into some green gawker driving a Prius, you know it is going to happen.

From the “Coalition for Sustainable Rail” website:

Once its modernization is complete, CSR 3463 will have little in common with the smoke-belching steam engine it once was. 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 in excess of 130 miles per hour, out-performing any existing diesel-electric on the market and breaking the world steam speed record. In light of this achievement, CSR has named this endeavor: “Project 130.”

Historical 3463 Tech Specs

train-techspecs bLocomotive 3463, acquired by CSR through the generosity of its former owner, the Great Overland Station of Topeka, Kansas, is the largest locomotive of its type left in the world and features the largest wheels of any engine in North America. CSR will completely rebuild and modernize the locomotive, doubling its thermal efficiency, converting it to burn biocoal and more. When done, locomotive 3463 will share only the most fundamental resemblance to the engine it once was.

The table below outlines characteristics of locomotive 3463 as built in 1937 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works:

Category Statistics 
General Classification 4-6-4
Service Passenger
Fuel Oil
Tractive Force, lbs. 49,300
Weight in Working Order, lbs. 412,380
Length, Overall, ft.-in. 102-6.75
Length, Wheelbase, locomotive and tender 88-8
Boiler (Nickel Steel):
   Diameter, in. 88
   Working Pressure, lbs. (Designed)  300 (310)
Firebox (Standard Firebox Steel, Grade B):
   Length, in. 132
   Width, in. 108
   Grate Area, sq. ft. 99
   Thermic Syphons  2 (95 ft2)
 Engine
   Cylinder Bore, in.  23.5
   Cylinder Stroke, in.  29.5
 Driving-wheel Tread Diameter, in.  84
 Capacity of Tender
   Water, gallons  20,000
   Oil, gallons 7,000
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GlynnMhor

The main reason diesel engines replaced steam ones is maintenance.
A steam boiler has to be torn down and rebuilt about every five years. That’s an issue that no amount of bizarre fuel is going to make go away.

Taphonomic

They can equivocate all they want; but somehow I fail to see how collecting the “woody material”, transporting it to the manufacturing location, heating it, ramming it together under high pressure, transporting it to the train site, etc. can all be considered carbon neutral.
Must be new math.

Go Home

Heck as long as they use that thing to haul coal to electric plants around the country at 130 MPH, I am all for it.

Mark and two Cats

Coal fusion hoax: simply another Solyndra-like scam to get obamabux, divide it up amongst the project perps, then declare bankruptcy and walk away rich.

earthdog

To make it, woody material — in this case trees — are heated in the absence of oxygen. The resulting flaky matter is then rammed together under high pressure to create coal-like bricks.

So… It runs on charcoal?
Yup. No CO2 there.

Pretty sure it would be significantly cheaper to pipe in electrons from some remote form of electron conversion and generation factory and burn those in tiny electron motors in each car, than to have a giant reciprocating steam engine tugging everything around (and dependent upon a charcoal-briquette factory, to boot).

Ah yes. The old conundrum. Heating the woody material in the absence of oxygen. And pray tell where will this heat come from? Will it be from the mystical electricity that runs electric cars that somehow comes from houses without actually being generated from anything as nasty as a coal/gas/nuclear power station. Sometimes I think the media needs a good bitch slapping with a Common Sense Stick but I fear the forrest these sticks came from was cut down sometime in the 1990’s for a solar power station experiment.

Eric

Excuse my ignorance here but….how is burning a tree carbon neutral? The only way it would be carbon neutral is if a new tree grew to the same size as the cut one in the time it takes to cut and burn the first one…correct? Otherwise cutting down every tree in the world and burning them for our energy needs would be the most carbon neutral energy policy ever conceived…

JDN

Many people have been waiting for a steam renaissance. As GlynnMohr mentioned, boiler maintenance and difficult water distribution points killed steam power. It will be interesting to see what modern materials and logistics can do.
Also, compressing charcoal (which is what they’re making) into briquettes takes energy and makes it more difficult to feed to the engine. If anyone knows the engine builders, it would be much easier to use an oil-based charcoal slurry to feed the boiler than using bricks, not to mention cheaper to make. Sure the whole idea is nuts, but since we aren’t going to escape the nuttiness, we may as well do it in style.

betapug

Britain and the math wizzes of the EU are well ahead on this. They are converting coal fired power stations to wood…shipped from Canada and the Southern US in oil powered ships. http://www.pellet.org/environment/3-environment
Occasional hitches as the wood spontaneously attempts to turn into charcoal:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/energy/biofuels/9108965/Firefighters-tackle-blaze-at-worlds-biggest-biomass-power-station.html
It’s all good though. Released lots of global cooling particulates.

Norman Schroeder

Read the previous story about using trees for fuel. They only contain half the energy as an equivalent weight of fossil fuel. Thus you have to cut twice as many trees, do all that energetic conversion to biocoal, and expect to be carbon neutral. These people are nuts!

renminbi

The Gas Producing Combustion System,developed by D L Porta was too late to save the steam locomotive, though it was a great advance permitting a cleaner combustion process. I think steam locomotives are great fun,but any idea that they are carbon neutral is out of la la land.Not that is of any importance, except that thinking so makes it so. Any idea that you will get 130 MPH is also a pipe dream. A two cylinder loco will wreck the track at that speed.

renminbi

My bad. The name is Livio Dante Porta and there is a wiki for him. Steam just isn’t used for transportation except for CVNs, submarine and Natural gas tankers.

William Martin in NZ

Aaaaaaaaaah,I was watching one of these two weeks ago.Burning oil tho.Brought back many memories of yesteryear.Lots of smoke and steam.Restored in Auckland and makes occasional trips pulling passenger carriages.Yep,those were the days,and no worries about global warming.It hadn’t been”INVENTED”then

Desecration of an irreplaceable artifact, if they do it.
Idiots. The passing away of steam locomotives had nothing to do with fuel. No railroad will now allow such a locomotive to obstruct and destroy any mainline trackage. I love steam locomotives, but they existed in the economics of the nineteenth century. Availability is a fraction of that of diesel electric, and cost of operations is multiples of that of diesel electric traction.
Thermal efficiency of steam locomotives is a ratio close to zero, and very far from unity. The double of near-to-zero inefficiency is still too-close-to-zero inefficiency.

Neil Jordan

I am forwarding this to my railroad engineer colleague. Perhaps he will be able to explain to me how this scheme is supposed to work.
“Carbon-free” fuel and “carbon-neutral” promises aside, it is a mystery how they will be able to fire a steam locomotive without creating at least the appearance of a monumental carbon footprint. See the attached links for recent shots of operating steam locomotives:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&feature=endscreen&v=fiSj47ps3j8
Taking their proposal at face value, presuming that the two preceding examples have purchased enough charcoal briquettes and carbon credits to be carbon neutral, the combustion process itself will be inherently dirty and release clouds of real carbon. It would be a travesty to promise otherwise.
One hundred thirty miles per hour on whose right of way? Even if computer simulations do show that old locomotive could get up to that speed on a long enough tangent without disassembling itself or pounding the track to pieces, it would still be governed by the laws of physics on curves to reduce speed to no faster than any other railroad equipment.

Ben Wilson

The wild claims made in this article border on fraud. Anyone who is familiar with steam locomotives will conclude that the proponents are either ignorant of steam locomotives or of felonious intent.
The only — and I mean only — advantage that steam locomotives have over diesel electrics is they put on a more spectacular show chugging down the track. Diesel Electrics are much more efficient (30+% vs. 10% even for superheated steam locos), much, much more reliable, much less polluting, much more versatile (think using multiple diesel locomotives hooked to each other with only one engineer), much easier on the tracks, and much, much more comfortable as far as the crew is concerned. The water requirements for steam locomotives were a huge headache, and while a closed steam system would avoid some of those problems, it greatly increases the amount of equipment the locomotive requires — adding a good sized condenser system.
By the time you figure in the inefficiencies of producing and transporting their charcoal briquettes — it’s almost as this article was a deliberate spoof to see some naive journalist would bite on it.

Patrick

Number 4468 Mallard is a London and North Eastern Railway Class A4 4-6-2 Pacific steam locomotive built at Doncaster, England in 1938. Recorded a sustained speed of 126mph.

Skiphil

??? “Biocoal has the same energy density as regular coal, but is cleaner burning, and since trees (the fuel source) sequester carbon as they grow, the system is considered carbon neutral, according to Ward.?
======================================================================
It is difficult to believe that they can acquire, process, and burn the “woody material” in a way that is “carbon neutral” compared to leaving the trees growing in place??? Unless they somehow could power all of this with already dead trees, which seems completely implausible.
Also, as others have pointed out, no one but no one is going to run major rail lines with this kind of propulsion in the 21st century. Maybe some boutique tourist ride for “green” lovers of biofuel, but not any major commercial heavy duty rail line.

Kasuha

I can see “back to the future” mentioned in the article. But this all rather sounds like “progress to the past” to me.

BB

So let me get this straight. If poor poeple cut down a tree and burn it to cook their food they are enviromental vandels that must have millions spent on them to train them how to mend their wicked ways, but if wealthy grant mongers cut down a tree, artificially dry it and turn it into charcoal, and ram it into briquettes using fossil fuels and then burn it in totally inefficient methods thats carbon neutral????
USA, putting the “mental” back in “enviromental”

Skiphil

example: I’ve spent a great deal of time in this area, seen this train on its route many times and ridden it a few times:
http://hebervalleyrr.org/excursions/scenic-excursions/provo-canyon-limited/#
They have a steam engine, which is beloved by tourists for its historical flavor, but they ALMOST ALWAYS are running the train with diesel engines despite the lack of “authentic” old historic flavor. I assume that’s because the costs and operating efficiencies of using the diesel engines are much better, because otherwise they would love to let tourists enjoy the experience of being pulled by an authentic steam engine.

Lew Skannen

People seem to forget that the US had its minimum number of trees during the period when trains ran on trees. When they moved to fossil fuel the forests recovered.

I have found the TRUE perptum mobile!
All you need is just drop the friction part from your calculations…
They have done the same, only they droped:
– cutting of trees
– heating them
– high pressure press
– transporting them
if you leave these tiny parts – then it is 100% carbon neutral.

Larry Ledwick (hotrod)

Fantastic they re-invented compressed charcoal briquettes, and use them to power a steam engine while other eco nuts have tried to tax/outlaw charcoal outdoor grills because of their carbon emissions.
In 2007 Belgium placed a tax on charcoal grilling because of its CO2 emissions. They were supposedly going to fly helicopters with equipment to locate BBQ grills that did not pay their “grilling tax”.
I have not heard much about this since, perhaps they figured out is was stupid or politically hazardous to try to keep people from doing a little grilling on holidays.
Then just a few years later, a company based in the same area, is advertising investment in bio-coal production.
http://www.4energyinvest.com/home.aspx?id=1000170&lg=en
http://www.4energyinvest.com/home.aspx?id=1000181&lg=en
What is that phrase ?? Oh yes follow the money.
Larry

Lark

“But it will burn carbon neutral fuel.”
Dollars?

TomTurner in SF

Can’t they just put 500 Prius engines on a flat car with a big transmission or something? It should work.

Patrick says:
May 31, 2012 at 10:19 pm
Number 4468 Mallard is a London and North Eastern Railway Class A4 4-6-2 Pacific steam locomotive built at Doncaster, England in 1938. Recorded a sustained speed of 126mph.
The Gresley Mallard is a fair amount lighter than the Baldwin Hudson referred to prior, in the silly news release; 100 tons vs 200 tons. Gresley was a very brilliant engineer, and designed the Mallard for speed. The Hudson can’t do 130 mph. It can’t do 100 mph, day in and day out. Especially not the 70 year old axles and rods. Fatigue kills.
The story is just another steam pipe dream. There have been many, over the years. The pipe dreams always depend on some kind of opportunism. This time it’s ‘green charcoal’ hockey pucks.
I don’t want them to bugger-up a Baldwin Hudson, so I hope they fail before they get their mitts on the locomotive. It’s not nice, but I hope they drop dead before they mess-up the locomotive.

a jones

Well many of us here may be steam nuts but some steam nuts are nuttier than others it seems.
But then of course I have the delight of a working narrow gauge steam railway just down the road. Kept running for tourists basically.
And the smell and the smoke are evocative of the days when I was a small boy: and just why electric haulage is so much better.
Kindest Regards

Any idea that you will get 130 MPH is also a pipe dream. A two cylinder loco will wreck the track at that speed.
“When the Westinghouse team were onboard, they were told that they were going to attempt to break the speed record. Why the secrecy? One reason was so that the LMS did not hear of the attempt beforehand. Another might be that the LNER’s civil engineering department were not keen on 120+ mph runs, when the track had official speed limits of only 90mph!
The Down journey consisted of conventional brake tests. At Barkston, the Westinghouse team were given the option of taking a taxi to Peterborough – they all refused! The centre big bearing was drowned in cylinder oil, and the return journey commenced. Grantham was passed at 24mph. By Stoke signal box, the speed had reached 74.5mph with full regulator and 40% cut-off. At milepost 94, 116mph was recorded along with the maximum drawbar of 1800hp. 120mph was achieved between milepost 92.75 and 89.75, and for a short distance of 306 yds, 125mph was touched.
A peak of 126mph was marked on the dynamometer rolls, and this speed was included in some unofficial reports. 126mph is also the speed marked on the plaque BR mounted on Mallard in 1948. Gresley never accepted this speed of 126mph, and thought it misleading. The LNER only claimed a peak average of 125mph – so breaking the world record for steam traction held by the German State Railways (124.5mph) and the British record set by the LMS (114mph).”
http://www.lner.info/locos/A/a4.shtml

JohnB

Why not add the demand that they sequester any co2 produced underground like they are with coal fired power plants. That should keep them busy for awhile.

I’d be willing to bet that every member of the board of that Coalition for Sustainable Rail has one of those steam locomotive engineer caps, and wears it to the meetings. As to the claims being made, I suspect those are all about a bunch of railway hobbyists figuring out that green is the way to get the donations necessary to play with a steam locomotive on the weekends. And who knows, some politician might even figure a way to kick in some public dollars.

One of the streamlined A4’s is the ‘Dwight D Eisenhower’ (so renamed in 1945) and lives at the National Railroad Museum at Green Bay, Wisconsin. 4496 was originally named Golden Shuttle.
http://d240vprofozpi.cloudfront.net/locos/A/a4_eisenhower.jpg

pat

Apparently they missed the Oregon study.

Mike Spilligan

Running steam locos is a great hobby – but it should be left at that. Ben Wilson got most of it right, without adding that utilisation was also a problem which is not overcome by charcoal burning. A steam loco could be in service about 16 hours a day (between major overhauls) but diesel and electrics can do 23+. Sully Augustine got to the real core of the matter here.

Tom

News for you – 130MPH is not “high speed rail”. 125MPH is standard speed rail, 175+ is high speed.

Patrick and tallbloke,
I envy the you the locomotives of Britain. Stanier and Gresley designed the most beautiful locomotives of all times.

Anthony, as a young boy I was on the platform at Newcastle Central when the famous Flying Scotsman pulled in en route from Edinburgh to London. The crew were kind enough to let me into the cab – a great experience. Terrific heat when the fire-box door was opened. This would be about 60 years ago, when steam was still king.

Julian Flood

Life imitating art: I actually sold a short story to Analog* (you remember, Astounding SF that was) which was all about a world run on tree products and fed on tree fruit. The cars were powered by chopped-up wood. The world got colder and everyone was panicking….
JF
*The only short of my 50 ish output which I didn’t put in my Kindle collections (available now!) as I wasn’t sure of the copyright position. Anyway, that doesn’t matter. Once I was in Analog.

ian Middleton

You have to admit, it’s a magnificent looking beast.

mwhite

“To make it, woody material — in this case trees — are heated in the absence of oxygen. The resulting flaky matter is then rammed together under high pressure to create coal-like bricks.”
http://www.balbic.eu/en/en_GB/what_is_biocoal/
“Biocoal is a solid fuel made from biomass by heating it in an inert atmosphere. The result is either charcoal, or if the process temperature is mild, a product called torrefied wood. Charcoal and torrefied wood can be called by common name biocoal.”
130 mph biocoal steam engines or should that read charcoal

Crispin in Waterloo

@Mike Busby and others
“Ah yes. The old conundrum. Heating the woody material in the absence of oxygen. And pray tell where will this heat come from? ”
++++++++
Wood heated to below about 280 C is endothermic – you need an external heat source. Above taht they the volatiles contain enough heat to have the process self- heating. Normally the heat is supplied by burning some of the raw material. Usually it can be done without external power to the plant.
Torrefied wood is heated to about 280-320 typically. The result is not charcoal (>400 C) it is torrefied wood. If the wood is pelletized first then torrefied, it contains the most energy that is practical, the endothermic constituents having been lost – typically >25 MJ/kg can be achieved. Charcoal would be about 29.5 and pure carbon >32.5. It is far more transport-efficient than burning wood and less ‘lossy’ than burning charcoal. There is a large market for this material in the EU right now, and growing, because of the transport efficiency and the bio-source.
There is a project in northern Senegal which is supplying charcoaled wood logs produced in an extruder. The input material is bullrushes which have proliferated along the banks of the Senegal river because of dams controlling the annual flooding that would otherwise wash them away. This is a good example of taking a (new) biofuel resource and turning it into an exportable high energy density fuel to sell to luckless Europeans who are forced by regulations to turn away from cheaper alternatives. Please let the rural poor benefit from their new-found invasive species.

Jimbo

The biocoal is based on a so-called torrefaction process pioneered at the University of Minnesota in Duluth. To make it, woody material — in this case trees — are heated in the absence of oxygen.

I thought nature had already [kinda] done the process for us and it was free. Is the above process powered by hydro, solar, wave, nuclear or windpower? If it’s not then I find it difficult to see how it’s carbon neutral. Not to mention transportation and the final burning process in the steam engine.
http://geology.com/rocks/coal.shtml

Biddyb

I still sing the Casey Jones song. It was one of my favourite tv programmes when I was a child. I’m English.

Lew Skannen says:
May 31, 2012 at 10:36 pm
People seem to forget that the US had its minimum number of trees during the period when trains ran on trees.
— — —
Don’t forget about all the wooden trestles, that also required replacing periodically.

AnonyMoose

Norman Schroeder says:
May 31, 2012 at 9:31 pm
Read the previous story about using trees for fuel. They only contain half the energy as an equivalent weight of fossil fuel. Thus you have to cut twice as many trees, do all that energetic conversion to biocoal, and expect to be carbon neutral.

They just have to cut enough trees to also have fuel to use to cook the feedstock, and more to generate electricity to drive the factory, and more to feed the factory worker’s steam-powered cars, and more to cook the factory worker’s lunches, and more to make compost with which to grow the factory worker’s food.

The main reason Western Europe switched from charcoal to coal in the Industrial Revolution is they had cut down most of their forests and couldn’t produce enough charcoal.
Biofuels have caused the worst environmental disaster of modern times in the loss of SE Asian tropical forest. But at least the fuel was being used in an economic and viable form of transport, the motor vehicle. Now they want wreck ecosystems and use the fuel to power an absurdly wasteful form of human transport, trains.

Roy

betapug says:
Britain and the math wizzes of the EU are well ahead on this. They are converting coal fired power stations to wood…shipped from Canada and the Southern US in oil powered ships.
In that case we will have come full circle. One of the reasons that the Industrial Revolution started in Britain was that our forests were being used up and therefore we turned to another fuel – coal. Mining coal is difficult and the challenges helped to develop new technologies – e.g. steam engines to pump water out of the mines. The steam engines were powered by coal. To make it easier to transport coal from the mines iron rails were laid down along which horses could pull wagons. Then Richard Trevithick, a Cornish engineer working in South Wales, replaced a team of horses with one of his steam engines and made the first public journey be steam train in 1804. (He might have carried out secret trials in Shropshire earlier). The rest is history.
The last of our deep coal mines in Wales closed 5 years ago and there are only a few left in the rest of the UK. Perhaps we should return to charcoal!

john douglas

By definition all fossil fuels consist of sequestered co2 therefore burning them can only be decribed as recycling, or rectifying and interrupted carbon cycle.

Bayard

“Once its modernization is complete, CSR 3463 will have little in common with the smoke-belching steam engine it once was.”
Why can’t they build a new steam locomotive from scratch? I doubt it would be much more expensive, once you’ve taken out the work required in tearing the old one apart. The Swiss build new, efficient steam locomotives; they could build this one.