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Moving Trains & Planes with Wood Power
By Barbara Coyner
At 23, Davidson Ward has already earned his college degree and snagged a good job as a transportation analyst in the Washington D.C. area. In today’s economy, that’s an achievement in itself, but Ward has much loftier goals. He intends to prove that, at higher speeds, a steam locomotive with modern technology can outperform a diesel, using cheaper, carbon-neutral fuel, operating with equal or lower maintenance costs. His fuel of choice? Biocoal, which is in reality, a derivative of woody biomass.
Ward isn’t waiting for someone else to do the heavy lifting on his project. He has already rounded up like-minded partners, including renewable energy specialists at the University of Minnesota, to form the nonprofit Coalition for Sustainable Rail (CSR; see www.csrail.org for more info), and he has claimed a vintage steam engine for use as his prototype.
Ward’s enchantment with trains, particularly steam engines, isn’t new. While attending the University of Minnesota, he volunteered with Milwaukee Road steam locomotive 261, and later he moved on to volunteer with a couple of Chinese-manufactured steam locomotives. He also picked up an interest in sustainable energy while in college, and as the old saying goes, one thing led to another. Kindred spirits John Rhodes, Rob Mangles, and Shaun McMahon eventually jumped on the bandwagon with Ward, forming CSR. More twists of fate led to the group landing its own steam engine from a museum in Topeka.
The idea is to build a new firebox and advanced exhaust system, among other modernizations on the old locomotive, after which it will be rehabbed and streamlined. The whole project is estimated to cost $4 million and take upwards of four years. CSR intends to show the world that a steam locomotive is no smoke belching relic from the past, but rather a type of technology that is adaptable to today’s environment.
The key to much of the effort is the type of fuel used in the steam engine. Ward says researchers at the University of Minnesota are developing and testing small, non-industrial amounts of biocoal, experimenting with hardwoods and softwoods as their raw source.
The materials go through a process of torrefaction, in which chips are conveyed to the torrefaction reactor where they are roasted at approximately 300°C. The torrefaction reactor is a low oxygen environment, preventing the wood from being burned. During torrefaction, the chemical composition of the raw material changes to torrefied wood. In the process, moisture is removed from the wood, the material is subsequently cooled, and it is then further processed into the preferred size.
Ward especially favors the torrefied wood as a fuel because it uses forest residuals rather than food stock such as corn or soy. And it is carbon neutral.
“It’s 95 percent thermally efficient,” he says, noting that thermal output is equal to, or better than, coal — plus it’s not as abrasive on equipment. Another big selling point is that, unlike unprocessed woody biomass, it doesn’t have to be stored under cover to be ready for use. It is somewhat weatherproof.
Renewable and Local Fuel Source
Envisioning trailer size torrefaction units, Ward sees a renewable energy product that can be manufactured locally and rather inexpensively by taking the manufacturing plant to the source. He claims the torrefaction process is efficient, not losing significant energy value as the material is converted. While there is still no large scale processing of the material going on, Ward and his associates know it’s just a matter of time until researchers fine tune the manufacturing processes. That’s when the CSR project really can kick into high gear with its plans to power steam engines in the modern day.
“It’s cheaper to run biocoal in a steam engine than to run a diesel,” Ward says. And that brings him to his basic premise of eventually powering newer locomotives at higher speeds with biocoal, running trains at perhaps 130 miles per hour.
Reflecting back on the old days when the Milwaukee Road ran trains at 120 miles per hour, he clearly doesn’t find the notion far-fetched at all. In fact, much of his thinking is nothing more than adapting concepts that have already been done in history. “I was trained as an architect,” he says. “And that means we were taught to think outside the box and optimize what’s already there.”
Just as Davidson Ward looks to woody biomass for its potential as sustainable green energy to power our transportation needs, so too the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) continues its quest to develop jet fuel from woody biomass. The pilot project netted a cool $40 million in government grants last year, and now several universities, industry players, and others are pooling their resources to develop jet fuel from wood wastes. It’s a promising idea, given that jets can’t be plugged into an energy source and must carry their fuel onboard.
Quoting from a June 16, 2012, Missoulian article by Rob Chaney: “Washington State University engineering professor Michael Wolcott acknowledged the program was a little like planning a city on Mars before anyone has a rocket to get there. But he argued there were plenty of good reasons to prepare for the rocket’s arrival.”
“We can’t fly planes on electricity,” Wolcott said later in the same article. “They’re going to be depending on liquid fuels for quite a while. Nothing else can match the energy density.”
While researchers already know some ways to make jet fuel from woody biomass, they are charged with the same challenges Davidson Ward and his group face: how do you move the concept from a small pilot project to a viable industry? Both entities know that the hurdles are numerous, including persuading certain skeptics that using woody biomass can contribute to forest health, not diminish it.