Regional railroad puts biodiesel blends to the test

By | October 14, 2009
A significant new market for biodiesel could open up if tests on biodiesel blends by an Iowan regional railroad are successful. Iowa Interstate Railroad Ltd. (IAIS) is testing B10 and B20 on one of its switching engines in cooperation with the University of Kansas and Renewable Energy Group Inc. REG is supplying the biodiesel fuel, the University of Kansas Transportation Research Institute is performing emissions testing, and IAIS is monitoring engine performance, engine wear and horsepower.

Biodiesel blend tests in locomotives have been few and far between. Locomotive engine manufacturers have not yet tested nor endorsed the use of biodiesel because railroad companies are not requesting to use biodiesel. If the industry were to take interest in biodiesel, it would be a significant market. In 2007, the rail industry consumed 3.6 billion gallons of diesel fuel, making it the second largest industrial user of petroleum diesel fuel, second only to the on-road sector.

"We hope this biodiesel blend demonstration will serve as the tipping point for the rail industry's use of renewable fuels," explained REG vice president of customer and service technical, Myron Danzer. "We expect to find reduced diesel particulate matter and carbon emissions, as well as improved lubricity with the use of biodiesel. This partnership is fitting as IAIS serves several of the biodiesel plants in the REG network by transporting large volumes of our REG-9000 biodiesel nationwide. For IAIS to burn the biodiesel they haul is a prime example of going green."

IAIS President and CEO Dennis H. Miller added, "Our company has been looking at biodiesel as an alternative to diesel fuel for some time. This could open the door for more than 600 other railroads to have another source of fuel to use in their locomotives that burns cleaner and is environmentally friendly. It is also another value-added market to Iowa farmers and the ag industry by providing another use for their products."

IAIS has incorporated biodiesel testing into the regular maintenance schedule for the switching engine being monitored. The 2,000-horsepower diesel electric is a 16-cylinder, two-stroke engine. Ted Peltier, assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Kansas, said he and a student made their first trip to Iowa in June with portable emissions testing equipment. Baseline measurements were taken on the switching engine for emissions and engine performance, before the fuel was switched to B10. In late September, after 90 days in service, the team went back to repeat the measurements. A B20 fuel blend was to be used until the next scheduled maintenance in December when the locomotive will switch back to straight diesel fuel to complete the comparative analysis.

IAIS is testing power output and fuel efficiency using a dynamometer, and checking for engine wear. "In the locomotive world, people say burning bio is going to cause wear," said Randy Laughridge, assistant chief mechanical officer at IAIS. "We ask them, where's your data?" One of the purposes of the tests is to collect that data on biodiesel's impact on engine wear. While biodiesel use in older light- and heavy-duty trucks can have problems with gasket and hose compatibility with biodiesel use, Laughridge explained locomotives primarily use steel and copper lines. The impact of biodiesel on fuel filters is part of the testing, he added. "But we haven't had any issues so far," he said. "No complaints."

By press time, Peltier said the University of Kansas team had not completed the data analysis for the B10 testing conducted in late September. The Kansas team is only monitoring the gaseous emissions, he added. "Particulates are important, but the portable equipment we use for small engines could only be scaled up for the gases. The equipment we use for particulate matter tests can't be scaled up." Tests are being run for levels of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and total hydrocarbons, as well as carbon dioxide. "There aren't current regulations on CO2, but everyone expects them to be coming in the future," Peltier added.

Locomotives, along with marine diesels, are among the last diesel industry sectors required to meet more stringent emission standards by the U.S. EPA. The standards apply to newly manufactured and remanufactured railroad locomotive engines that were originally built after 1973. The first tiers of standards became effective in 2000 with the final date for Tier 0 through Tier 2 compliance set for 2010. More stringent Tier 3 and 4 standards were adopted by the agency in March 2008. The Tier 3 standards become effective in 2011 and 2012, and are expected to be met by engine design methods to reduce emissions. Tier 4 standards become effective in 2015 and are expected to require exhaust aftertreatment technologies to meet the standards. Typically, rail locomotives are kept in service for decades, receiving regular maintenance and replacement of key parts. The big diesels, which range from 600 horsepower for small switching engines to over 2,500 horsepower for long haulers, actually generate electricity to supply power to traction motors driving the running gear. With regular maintenance, the diesels undergo major overhauls every 10 to 15 years. With such a slow turnover in the fleet, EPA expects the air quality benefits from its emissions standards to extend to 2030 and beyond.

-Susanne Retka Schill
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