The future of rail could be this 75-year-old steam locomotive

It may not look especially futuristic, but this vintage 1937 train engine is about to be transformed into the fastest, cleanest, most powerful steam locomotive ever, thanks to modern steam technology and biocoal.

Steam sounds all vintage-y, but most of our modern power grid relies on steam power. Whether it's nuclear power or coal power or just about anything else (with the exception of wind and solar and hydro and other renewable sources), steam is used to change heat energy into electrical energy. So, even though steam trains have gone the way of the dinosaurs and the dodo and print media, steam technology itself has been continually improving.

The problem with steam trains is that they're dirty: they burn coal, which is bad for the freakin' environmint, not just because of all that carbon but also the nasty assortment of vaporized heavy metals that comes along with it. It doesn't have to be this way, though: steam trains can burn just about anything, from wood to oil to leftover print media, and if you instill one of these fiery old beasts with modern technology and feed it something eco-friendly, you'll have yourself a locomotive that can hit 130 miles an hour, has better horsepower than modern diesel-electrics, is cheaper to operate and maintain, and offers zero net carbon emissions because it burns biocoal.

Or at least, this is the plan.

The University of Minnesota and Sustainable Rail International have purchased an old steam locomotive that they're going to turn into something futuristic and awesome that'll lead the way towards a steam-filled future. The key to this whole endeavor is the eco-friendliness: the revamped locomotive will be practical because of the biocoal fuel source, which is similar to regular coal except that it's made from plants without you having to wait 300 million years.

Biocoal is carbon neutral because even though you burn it and it releases carbon into the atmosphere, the biomass (like trees) that the biocoal is made from in the first place have preemptively sucked all that carbon out already. This is in contrast to regular coal, which is also made from biomass (much older biomass), but once you burn coal you're already behind the carbon curve.

The locomotive at the heart of this project (Santa Fe Steam Locomotive 3463) has just gotten a fresh coat of paint in preparation for its move from Topeka to Minneapolis, where it will be totally modernized and reconfigured. Steam is back, baby, steam is back.

UMN, via Inhabitat

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