Locomotives May Run on LNG
In what may be termed an historic shift, the railways are testing locomotive engines redesigned to run on a combination of diesel fuel and liquefied natural gas (LNG). General Electric Co. and Caterpillar Inc. have developed natural gas-powered prototypes, scheduled for testing this year.
The reasoning? Railroad companies estimate switching from diesel fuels to natural gas could cut costs by as much 50 percent. “We are entering a new era where natural gas will be a major fuel,” Lorenzo Simonelli, chief executive officer of GE’s transportation unit, said in a 2013 Bloomberg interview. “If you believe the price advantage over diesel is going to stay here for the next 10 to 15 years, then LNG is a revolutionary fuel.”
Converting from diesel to a combination of diesel and liquefied natural gas offers potential cost savings, which could improve profits and increase the competitive edge the railway holds against the trucking industry.
LNG Usage Projected to Continue Growth
In April 2014, The U.S Energy Information Administration (EIA) projected that “…liquefied natural gas will play an increasing role in powering freight locomotives in coming years. Continued growth in domestic natural gas production and substantially lower natural gas prices compared to crude oil prices could result in significant cost savings for locomotives that use LNG as a fuel source, according to EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2014 (AEO2014).”
Initial testing is taking place on locomotives with engines retrofitted to run on a combination of diesel and LNG. Trains running on the combination of fuels will need to haul fuel tender cars to carry the LNG fuel, adding to costs of conversion to the diesel/LNG fuel mix. The design of the fuel tender cars will need to be standardized since freight railways frequently exchange locomotives as part of overall railway efficiencies.
The Environmental Benefits of LNG
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s rail air pollutants standards, slated for 2015 enforcement, contain strict emissions regulations. The railway’s usage of LNG, which causes lower emissions than diesel, is projected to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions by as much as 70 percent.
The conversion from diesel to natural gas is expected to take time. In addition to the costs related to retrofitting the U.S. locomotive fleet, the expenses and logistics of developing the infrastructure, with sufficient natural gas fueling stations and storage, have yet to be determined. Further, installing LNG tanks on rolling stock will undoubtedly introduce new safety and compliance regulations. Fuel tender cars may be difficult to obtain in the quantities needed since tank car manufacturers are already struggling to meet demand and the wait for new tankers can take up to three years, in some cases.
While the rail industry appears to view natural gas powered locomotives as a viable and cost effective option for the future, other factors including operational, financial, regulatory, and mechanical challenges will impact the speed of adoption. Every step toward lowering pollutants in our transportation infrastructures is well worth the efforts, even with the challenges at hand.
Image: Loco Steve
Chart courtesy of the EIA