Solving Cities

New biomass-powered train to travel at 130 m.p.h.

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Cars and planes can run on biomass. Why not trains as well?


If the Twin Cities-based Coalition for Sustainable Rail (CSR) has anything to do with it, trains will soon run carbon-neutral.

This week, the Coalition, a project of the University of Minnesota's Institute on Environment, teamed up with Sustainable Rail International, a non-profit advocacy group, to announce the launch of an initiative to build the world's fastest biofuel-powered steam locomotive.

If successful, the prototype won't just be carbon-neutral; it will also eclipse the current steam locomotive world record by traveling at 130 m.p.h.: providing a compelling alternative to diesel-electric trains used today.

“This project presents a novel approach to U.S. locomotive development," said Davidson Ward, president of SRI, "looking to technologies of the past to inspire solutions for today’s sustainability challenges."

Paving the way for the project was the creation of torrefied biomass, a carbon-neutral coal substitute. Engineered by the University of Minnesota's Natural Resources Research Institute, the new fuel has the same energy, density, and material properties as coal -- without the sulfur, metals, or carbon footprint.

If those involved have anything to do with it, the project's impact will extend far beyond the creation of a successful prototype.

“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," said Rod Larkins, Special Projects Director of the University's Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment.

Mr. Conductor would be very proud.

Photo: Vestman/Flickr

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Claire Lambrecht

Contributing Writer

Claire Lambrecht has written for the New York Times, Slate, Salon, The Nation, and CBS MoneyWatch. Previously, she taught English as a Teach for America Corps Member and Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. She holds degrees from Cornell University, the University of Hawaii, and the Arthur M. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure