Steam Engines: Back To The Future
The 1937 steam engine after its makeover.

Steam Engines: Back To The Future

The U is involved in an effort to rebuild a 1937 steam engine as a green energy game-changer.

Few would assume that acquiring a rusting 1937 steam locomotive from a museum in Kansas represents a step forward for clean energy. But a collaboration between the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and the nonprofit organization Sustainable Rail International (SRI) suggests the future is in steam.The effort, Coalition for Sustainable Rail (CSR), made cosmetic upgrades to the locomotive and will transport it to Minneapolis to be retrofitted to use new fuel technology being refined by U researchers.

0812-SteamEng-before_320.jpgThe 1937 steam engine before its makeover.

The new tech involves torrefaction, which creates dried wood compressed into pellets the size of hockey pucks, also known as “biocoal”; it’s said to have the same energy density as traditional coal but contain no heavy metals and produce less ash, smoke, and volatile gases. “And since the tree, as it grew, sequestered carbon, it’s actually net carbon-neutral,” says SRI President Davidson Ward.

CSR plans to have the converted train ready to roll in three to five years. Ward says his group is in the major fundraising phase for the $5 million-plus project.

The updated locomotive will require on-board regulation of water and biocoal levels, and steam will exit the stack just as in the olden days. A second-gen model, built from scratch, would include computerized elements and a condenser to capture and recycle ejected steam, further boosting energy efficiency, says Ward.

CSR anticipates the locomotive will meet federal speed and efficiency targets, operating at up to 130 miles per hour, and the group claims the train will not only run cleaner and cheaper, but also “significantly out-accelerate” diesel-electric locomotives.

Rod Larkins, special projects director for the U’s renewable energy programs, hears many pitches angling for research dollars. Larkins says he was “frankly a skeptic” about revisiting steam engines, but biocoal was “really what got me interested”—in part because U researchers had already made strides with torrefaction.

The potential is great. Existing coal plants could be converted to biocoal, and power providers have expressed interest in the technology, Larkins says. It could also mean Minnesota jobs: The U is seeking a business partner to build a biocoal production facility in northern Minnesota, which Larkins says could help revive the depressed timber industry.