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The United States was tamed in large part by Steam Engines. The regional and transcontinental railroads of the 1800’s changed the way people and products moved around our young large country. But things changed after WWII with the introduction of Diesel-Electric Hybrid locomotives. Learn more about the history of Steam Engines by checking out a post I did a while back called Steam Engines: From Pumps to Power Plants.

Baldwin locomotive 3463
Baldwin locomotive 3463

Modern locomotives employ ginormous internal combustion engines that are fueled by diesel fuel. But they don’t work the same way a diesel truck works. They are diesel-electric hybrids, so the diesel engine turns an electric generator and that generator supplies electricity to large electric motors that power the wheels.

The main reason why diesel locomotives are hybrid is because this eliminates the need for a mechanical transmission, as found in cars. [How Stuff Works]

To learn more about how a diesel locomotive works, check out the awesome article on How Stuff Works. And check out season 4 episode 18 of Dirty Jobs for Mike Rowe’s day of working as a locomotive builder where he learns everything from working on the electric motors, to rebuilding diesel engines.

The Future of Steam

Some people these days are in love with the nostalgia of steam engines and antique ways of life, like the men in the video below who are using two Baker Steam Traction Engines to power a Frick Saw mill and saw lumber out of large logs.

Sustainable Steam Engines

I bring all this up, not because I’m obcessed with trains and steam engines, but because I just read an interesting article in Wired Magzaine about the Coalition for Sustainable Rail and a project being undertaken at the University of Minnesota to modernize a 75 year old Baldwin steam locomotive with the goal of making it cleaner, more powerful and cheeper to run than a modern diesel-electric hybrid locomotive.

 locomotive 3463 as built in 1937 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works
locomotive 3463 built in 1937 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works

Locomotive 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. [Coalition for Sustainable Rail]

One of the things that makes their view of modern steam engines clean and cost effective is the fuel stock used to fire the boiler that uses torrefied biomass. Here’s a good explanation from a guy with a mullet from the Natural Resources Research Institute. Don’t worry, mullets are quite common in Minnesota.

Explanation of Torrefied Biomass Fuel
Explanation of Torrefied Biomass Fuel

So if the Coalition for Sustainable Rail has it’s way, the future might hold a place not for anachronistic steam engines at fairs and special events, or more Disneyland style attractions like the Virginia and Truckee Railroad, but actual plumes of steam coming from the locomotives that pull our freight and passenger trains right through our towns and coutrysides. How cool is that?!?!?!


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