The train of the future will run on batteries

The United States has the largest rail network in the world. Beginning in the early 1800s, the laying of railroad tracks became a symbol of America’s economic and territorial expansion. Today, nearly 2 billion tons of freight travel on American trains each year, and millions of Americans use Amtrak to travel around the country.

All that rail activity is a big but underrated contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. If we are to prevent the most devastating effects of climate change from happening, it is important for the United States to electrify our travel habits — not just with our cars, but with every other means of transportation. other major means of transport. Commuter and long-distance trains often run on toxic diesel fuel, which contributes twice as much carbon emissions as electric trains.

We use the trains to get around cities (New York City’s subways and San Francisco’s BART system are perhaps the best known examples), but they require an overhead line ( a leash) or a third rail that continuously supplies power. Chris Rahn, a professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State, told The Daily Beast that placing overhead lines near railroad tracks to facilitate long-distance travel across the US was simply too expensive. .

So we need another solution to electrifying the rest of America’s trains. And that solution seems to be large batteries – generally the proven lithium-ion batteries we see in electric vehicles, only much larger. These are known as battery powered trams and are becoming more and more popular. In February, Union Pacific Railroad purchased 20 of these locomotives for its rail yards from Wabtec and Progress Rail, which launched new trains last year. BNSF Railroad is also testing the trains on the service between Barstow and Stockton, California.

“I think it will come and it will start to get more attention,” Rahn said. “You’re going to start seeing more of these trains on the tracks.”

A battery-powered electric train works well in a rail yard, says Rahn, but he doesn’t think we’ve quite gotten to the point where we can use them for long distances. If you need to transport goods hundreds of miles away, he says, you’ll most likely want something with a diesel engine and batteries. Basically, a hybrid.

“Cargo rail, of course, requires a lot of energy. I don’t see a purely battery-electric solution for long-distance transportation for a while,” Rahn said.

It takes time to charge these batteries — hours that you probably don’t want to waste — and they can only function properly after a single charge.

“If deployed on a large scale — battery-electric locomotives can be economically viable.”

– Amol Phadke, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

That doesn’t seem ideal when you’re trying to get products where they need to go as quickly as possible. Hybrids could be the stopgap technology that accelerates the transition from all-diesel to all-electric trains.

But some are more optimistic than others. Amol Phadke, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, thinks we’re ready to have all-electric trains over long distances. He’s done research on whether battery-powered electric trains are economically viable, and he told The Daily Beast it’s simply setting up the right system.

“Cargo trains, on average, travel 150 miles per day. A battery-powered electric train car can travel 150 miles, says Phadke. “If you want more range you can add additional battery cars because it is very modular, or when you stop you can recharge the carriages or you can have extra carriages that you can swap in and out.”

Charging times are getting faster and faster, but even if you don’t have time to recharge, Phadke believes that simply carrying spare batteries or swapping them out at stations can make everything work.

“We looked at whether it would be economical to just install more battery-powered wagons… to eliminate diesel fuel consumption. What we found is that – if deployed on a large scale – battery-electric locomotives can be economically viable,” said Phadke. “In addition to the economy, they also provide huge environmental benefits.”

There are also some valid public health arguments for the switch to battery-powered locomotives: Phadke notes that besides contributing to greenhouse gas accumulation, diesel train smoke could lead to around 1,000 deaths. premature death each year in the US

If you don’t want to add carriages or switch cars at the station, Rahn points out that there may be other ways to keep these trains charged. He said that while we can’t put overhead lines everywhere, we can put them in the right places to help keep trains charged.

For example, there could be a mile where the train is attached to an overhead line here and there as it moves through certain areas and that could help recharge the batteries and keep things moving. You can even imagine placing wind turbines or solar panels near the tracks so the railway company can produce its own energy to recharge trains with clean energy, Rahn said.

While cars and trucks are still the largest contributors to carbon emissions in the transportation sector, there is less and less reason to exclude trains from the battery revolution, especially since battery prices have dropped. strongly in recent years – a decrease of 88% in the period 2010-2020. It looks like there will be a lot more battery powered trains in the not too distant future. The train of the future will run on batteries

Russell Falcon

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