University announces plans for high-tech, environmentally friendly train

Bryna Godar

A 1937 locomotive from Topeka, Kan. will soon be transformed into the world’s first carbon-neutral higher-speed locomotive. The plans were announced Thursday by the Coalition for Sustainable Rail, a collaboration of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and Sustainable Rail International, a nonprofit.

Their goal is to “develop the world’s cleanest, most powerful higher-speed passenger locomotive, proving the viability of biocoal and modern steam technology,” according to CSR’s website.

To do this, the coalition will convert a locomotive from 1937 into a modern steam engine that runs on "biocoal." "Biocoal" is derived by torrefying, or roasting, biomass (such as wood), leading to a solid, dry, blackened material dense with energy. It has similar properties to coal, but is carbon-neutral and doesn’t contain heavy metals. Based on this environmentally-friendly potential, the University’s news release claims that “biocoal has the potential to revolutionize the way the United States generates clean electricity.”

The locomotive currently resides in Topeka, Kan., and CSR plans to move it to Minneapolis sometime in the next 12 months. Once moved, CSR will renovate and modernize it. The coalition later plans to test the technology by striving to break the world record for steam locomotive speed, aiming to reach 130 miles per hour.

“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 in the University’s news release. Larkins is the Special Projects Director of IonE’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment. “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.”