You might think that a coal-burning locomotive built in 1937 had nothing left to offer the modern rail industry, short of being a nice museum piece. In the case of Locomotive 3463, however, that appears to be far from true – now in the hands of engineers from the Coalition for Sustainable Rail (CSR), it is set to become the world’s first carbon-neutral higher-speed locomotive. It won’t be electric, however. Instead, it will run on steam generated by the burning of biocoal.

CSR is a collaboration between the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE) and the nonprofit Sustainable Rail International (SRI). The group’s current CSR Project 130 has one goal – to create “the world’s cleanest, most powerful passenger locomotive, proving the viability of solid biofuel and modern steam locomotive technology.” The “130” in the name comes from the fact that part of the project will involve an attempt at breaking the world record for steam locomotive speed, by pushing the very-overhauled locomotive to at least 130 mph (209 km/h).

Locomotive 3463 was donated to CSR by the Great Overland Station Museum in Topeka, Kansas, in November of last year. While it originally ran on plain old mined-from-the-earth coal, it will be adapted to burn biocoal – a biomass-derived solid fuel with an energy density and handling properties similar to those of coal, but that contains no heavy metals, and produces less ash, smoke and volatile off-gases. Additionally, it’s carbon neutral, meaning that it releases no more carbon when being burned than was originally absorbed by the plants that it’s made from.

CSR’s early research suggests that the test locomotive will be cheaper to fuel and maintain than regular diesel-electric models, while also offering quicker acceleration and better horsepower output at higher speeds ... and, of course, it will run cleaner. If the demonstration project is successful, however, trains could be merely a starting point for biocoal-fueled steam power.

“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 IonE’s Rod Larkins.

Sources: University of Minnesota, Coalition for Sustainable Rail