Biofuel Steam Locomotive Tomorrow’s Cleaner Mass Transit?

Can an old, restored steam locomotive be the harbinger for a new era in cleaner train travel? That’s what a Minnesota based collaboration between the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE) and the nonprofit Sustainable Rail International (SRI) are betting on, unveiling plans via their new Coalition for Sustainable Rail (CSR) for a biofuel powered, carbon-neutral locomotive.

While it could be argued high speed rail (HSR) is a cleaner option for trains versus one making use of biofuels, a combination of prohibitive costs and infrastructure challenges make HSR domestically a not always favorable option. Also, in many parts of the developing world, HSR, for the same reasons, will never be a reality. That leaves the need for more regular, cleaner burning locomotives to take to the tracks.

CSR train

image via CSR

The CSR plan calls for making use of  torrefied biomass (biocoal), a biofuel created through “an energy-efficient processing” of cellulosic biomass, as the fuel source. Biocoal is described by the groups behind this as effectively being carbon neutral – compared to regular coal anyhow – as well as containing no heavy metals and producing less ash, smoke and volatile off-gases.

CSR Project 130, as it is called, has the goal of creating not only the world’s cleanest locomotive to prove the viability of solid biofuel and modern steam locomotive technology, but also the most powerful, especially when compared to the diesel electrics commonly in use today. The vision for the technology being developed in this process is to help build a locomotive that can reach speeds of 130 miles per hour, breaking the world record for steam locomotive speed, which is currently 126 MPH.

I am the editor-in-chief and founder for EarthTechling. This site is my desire to bring the world of green technology to consumers in a timely and informative matter. Prior to this my previous ventures have included a strong freelance writing career and time spent at Silicon Valley start ups.


  • Reply May 28, 2012


    This could be a pretty cool idea.  But you don’t have to use only torrified wood. What about using bio-oil which can be produced from wood and other bio-solid sources?  I understand you can now produce bio-oil and bio-diesel from wood using commercially available technology.  Might be useful for many previously oil-burning steam locomotives.

    • Reply June 9, 2016

      Jesse Cane

      If only there were a type of engine suited specifically to burning (bio)diesel, a diesel engine if you will. 🙂

  • Reply May 29, 2012

    Connie Holland

    sounds great to me

  • Reply May 30, 2012

    Scott Howes

    Hi This is cool sign of success defining moment sustainability in motion the RR has a steam train saw it last year. The Train is just show I do hope this becomes a working train took couple of pictures. I have web site keep me in mind if I can help
    Scott Howes Safety is Job 1 

  • Reply June 7, 2012


    On its face, this scheme makes absolutely no sense — unless “gettin’ bamboozled” somehow makes folks in Topeka proud of themselves.

    In the first place, ATSF 3463 is the only (repeat – only) Santa Fe locomotive of its class remaining in the world. Why would anybody in Topeka, Kansas, namesake of the storied Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Company, turn this one-of-a-kind asset over to people who propose to mutilate it to prove something that doesn’t need to be proven?

    In the second place — this locomotive is a reciprocating steam device, with broad, inherent operational drawbacks compared to modern diesel-electrics or other propulsion not requiring huge supplies of water.

    Because of the way power is delivered to the drive wheels, reciprocating steam locomotives “hammer the rails” — outward on both sides on alternating power strokes — necessitating significantly increased track maintenance.

    If the locomotive is to be so completely altered as to eliminate its reciprocating drive train, why not simply start fresh and forget the unnecessary vandalism of this historic treasure?

    The whole story sounds much more like a rather transparent effort to talk incredibly naive people out of their unique, historic treasure for eventual transfer (likely after significant money has changed hands) to one of the nation’s big railway museums.

    Some years back I saw the state of Oklahoma cede ownership of a former Rock Island Pacific-type steam locomotive to an allegedly “nonprofit railway preservation group” in Texas – for $1. However — once across the state line, the locomotive went directly to the yard of a commercial operation in Ft. Worth where a key mechanical component was removed for use in another, operational excursion locomotive. The balance of the hulk was then sent to a big, well-known railway museum in Illinois, in a sale reportedly involving big bucks — where it now resides.

    Any way you look at SRI’s proposal, it’s inescapably a story that might well go down in the annals of flim-flams right along with such classics as “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

  • Reply June 9, 2016

    Jesse Cane

    Nuclear power+renewables+electric locomotives=much better!

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