The advent of the steam locomotive was critical for the population and industrialization of much of the modern world. But it was only a short time before transportation technology leaped forward yet again, giving us the personal car, and pushing the steam engine into relative antiquity.

But cars are inefficient, and trains were a great way to move big groups of people long distances for relatively low cost — something that’s in vogue once again now that the global population has surpassed 7 billion. We’re still years away from the infrastructure necessary to make electric trains viable (in the U.S. anyway), and current locomotives run on diesel, which is expensive and just as dirty as coal. If only we could run alternative energy trains on the tracks that already exist….

Turns out, that’s not as far-fetched of an idea as it may sound. The Coalition for Sustainable Rail (CSR) recently announced plans to create the world’s first carbon-neutral higher-speed locomotive. Instead of starting from scratch, CSR will completely restore a locomotive from 1937 and turn it into the world’s first modern steam engine that runs on biofuel.

Drawing on the carbon-neutral solid biofuel research expertise of the University of Minnesota and the modern steam mechanical engineering capabilities of Sustainable Rail International, CSR will convert the engine to run on torrefied biomass, also known as biocoal.

Now, we all know that “clean coal” is nothing but a figment of the fossil fuel industry’s imagination, but biocoal is different. Made entirely of plant matter, biocoal offers the same energy density and material handling properties as coal, but is carbon neutral, contains no heavy metals, and produces less ash, smoke and volatile off-gases. With the ability to burn biocoal efficiently and without negative impact on the environment, CSR’s modern steam locomotive will also exhibit significantly better horsepower output at higher speeds than the current diesel-electric locomotives that pull the majority of passenger trains in the United States.


In May, CSR completed a cosmetic restoration and stabilization of Locomotive 3463 in Topeka (top image shows before, while the one directly above shows what it looked like after). Plans are to move the locomotive to Minneapolis within the next 12 months. Once moved, CSR will complete the detailed engineering needed to modernize and reconfigure the locomotive. The result could have implications that reach far beyond the need for clean transportation options.

Once perfected, the biocoal technology could later be used for combined heat and power energy in the developing world as well as reducing the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels.

Photo credits: Coalition for Sustainable Rail