Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Biocoal Steamer And The Problems Of Green Hype

This odd little story caught my eye: apparently a team from the University of Minnesota, along with a group called Sustainable Rail International (under the banner “the Coalition for Sustainable Rail”) are planning to rehabilitate a 1930's-vintage steam railroad locomotive as a showcase for biocoal technologies.

In case you've never heard of it, biocoal is a supposedly “green” and sustainable fuel source made from cellular plant that has been processed and compressed into a stable, solid fuel – hence the name “biocoal”, since the resulting fuel looks and acts like your traditional mined carbon coal.  Advocates claim that biocoal is green since the carbon it contains was fixed from the atmosphere when the source plants were growing and that it does not contain the heavy metals, like mercury, found in traditional coal.  Getting more biocoal simply involves harvesting more plants.

So far, so good with the story.  The choice of a test-bed – a 1930's vintage 4-6-4 “Hudson”-type locomotive, which has spent the past few years languishing at a museum in Topeka, Kansas is an interesting one, and a choice sure to net the Coalition for Sustainable Rail some added publicity if/when the project ever does hit the rails.  But it is at this point that the claims being made by the project's backers start to get a little ridiculous.

Engine 3463 during its working days.

The steam engine project is being called Project 130 by the Coalition for Sustainable Rail, since they plan for the resurrected Hudson to race down the rails at 130 mph.  This idea is utterly ridiculous.  The recognized speed world record for a steam locomotive is 126 mph, and that was set by a highly-streamlined loco, not the boxy Hudson selected for the project.  The Coalition for Sustainable Rail also claims that the steamer will cost less to fuel and maintain than a modern diesel freight engine; this claim is also dubious.  It is impossible right now to compare the economics of diesel fuel to biocoal, since the latter is not being produced in anywhere near the levels of diesel; but higher maintenance costs were one of the key factors that doomed steam engines, they are simply more labor-intensive than diesel engines.

And that gets to the “green hype” issue.  The Coalition for Sustainable Rail couldn't leave well enough alone by merely making the already impressive claim that the steam engine test would show biocoal's viability as a sustainable, less-environmentally impacting fuel, but one that could be substituted for traditional coal without modification to existing equipment; instead they have to dress their claim up will all sorts of impossible-to-execute frills, like claiming this museum refugee will fly down the rails like a formula-1 race car.  This is a trap that green advocates seem to fall into all too often – it is not enough to offer a substitute to existing energy technologies, they have to insist their new green tech will be better, not just incrementally better, but revolutionary better, and in the process they make promises they can't keep, which ultimately makes even successful demonstrations of their technology look like failures.
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