Skip to comments.Berkshire's BNSF Railway to Test Switch to Natural Gas
Posted on 03/05/2013 11:24:15 PM PST by Ernest_at_the_Beach
BNSF Railway Co., one of the country's biggest consumers of diesel fuel, plans this year to test using natural gas to power its locomotives instead.
If successful, the experiment could weaken oil's dominance as a transportation fuel and provide a new outlet for the glut of cheap natural gas in North America.
The surplus, spurred by new technologies that unlock the fuel from underground rock formations, has sent natural-gas prices plummeting. That has prompted industries from electric utilities to tugboat operators to switch to gas. If freight rail joins the parade, it would usher in one of the most sweeping ...
(Excerpt) Read more at online.wsj.com ...
Nat Gas for trains makes a lot of sense. For cars, not as much. Every bit helps though.
Looking forward to comments on this one. Can large diesel engines even be converted to NG? What about the massive fuel supply the locomotives require, and what happens when they get in a wreck? Yowzer...don’t even want to think about that one.
It makes perfect sense. Alternative fuels are most efficient in fleets with their own built-in infrastructures.
This is going to be a real debacle. There’s a larg enough gulf between the BTUs of diesel fuel and the BTUs of natural gas to make a significant dent in engine efficiency. With diesel, locomotives approach (and sometimes exceed) 40 percent heat efficiency; that’ll be cut a great deal (perhaps as much as half) with a switch to natural gas. Those big prime movers will now need spark plugs, too, making yet another dent in heat efficiency (more parts, more thermodynamic breakdown). Gensets have way more moving parts than the larger diesels, too (imagine doubling the number of cylinders, and then doubling the maximum revolutions per minute that the engine operates at).
According to the WSJ article, the same number of BTUs from diesel cost about $4 now versus about 50 cents from natural gas at current industrial prices.
Even with locomotive conversion and natural gas liquifaction costs, looks like there could be plenty of margin for this to work.
After all, if NG is so much cheaper than coal for power plants (plus lower CO2 emissions), then it should be somewhere between “possible” to “very likely” that it will work for the big prime movers in locomotives.
It is definitely worth testing.
There is a lot more in play than mere nominal fuel cost. Engine longevity, for one (Diesel-cycle engines often outlast Otto-cycle engines). Different maintenance requirements. Different (and more dangerous) on-board fuel storage and delivery requirements. More extensive electrical systems due to the need for spark plugs to ignite fuel.
This is the wrong place to talk of carbon dioxide emissions in the context of their being a bad thing.
Natural gas is not cheaper than coal for power plants. Why do you think the European countries that have abandoned nuke power are switching to coal?
BNSF already boasts that they can move 2,000 pounds of freight a distance of 495 miles on one gallon of diesel.
We ran a pair of Fairbanks Morse OP 38 8 1/8 engines on NG (diesel start-diesel pilot) for years but that was for co-generating electricity. I don't know if they can be used for motive engines running NG.
Its great. If they use Natural Gas the trains will no longer be using fossil fuels.
Fairbanks Morse OP engines were used in the locomotive industry back in the 1950’s. Operationally, they were good powerful engines, but they were difficult to maintain. It is worth investigating. However, one thing that is not being discussed — railroads often loan power to other railroads. How would that affect the industry if the ability to use run-thru power from BNSF to NS, UP, etc, was no longer available?
Not necessarily. There is a dual-injection cycle in which both natgas and a SMALL amount of diesel are injected simultaneously. The diesel serves as the ignition source when compressed, igniting the natgas (thus no spark plugs), and the total efficiency is supposedly HIGHER than diesel alone.
Yes it is, and higher efficiency as well (combined cycle gas turbine/steam turbine).
"Why do you think the European countries that have abandoned nuke power are switching to coal?"
Uh, perhaps because they HAVE domestic sources of coal but IMPORT natural gas (from the Russki's). And because they are behind the curve on horizontal drilling and fracking.
Yes, and they can be dual fuel switching between the two.
What about the massive fuel supply the locomotives require
The articles states they will add a tanker car.
what happens when they get in a wreck?
They will be using LNG, methane cooled down to -260°F. LNG is not ignitable; it has to be vaporized first. The natural gas vapor is significantly lighter than air and rises and disperses naturally. The methane vapor needs to be "diluted" with air until it is down to about 15% methane before it can be ignited.
Would it be practical for them to switch to a gas turbine engine to power the generators?
I had the same thought about gas turbines similar to the ones that power the M1 main battle tanks. Probably have to be a bit larger, but they should work.
My guess is not, mostly because of the massive infrastructure already in place to support diesels. Switching to a turbine means discarding all of that and building new.
US sourced NatGas is the fuel of the future for North America.
NatGas usage will reduce the cost of production & shipping in the USA and the money spent on NatGas will go back into our own economy, instead of fueling growth in the Middle East (where they hate us).
What European countries have domestic hard coal sources out of the ones that have turned against nuclear? Germany has a lot of lignite (soft coal), which is not very efficient; it imports the higher-BTU hard coal that it intends to use.
Combined cycle plants have more moving parts. Thermodynamics can’t be evaded. Storage of gas under pressure is still a larger problem than storing coal.
So we have more complexity for not very much return. And how is this supposed higher efficiency calculated?
Everyone has opinions and opinions do not matter. Well, they do in politics and stuff, but...
When you are dealing with engineering and process systems, systems operations etc., the data has to be what counts.
So firstly, there are numerous NG conversion options being studied. One is 10% Diesel plus NG injection so no spark plugs. In this are low pressure late-stroke injection or early stroke high pressure injection. There are also dual-fuel but pure NG options.
Separate and apart from a future transition to a next-gen fleet which is gas-turbine.
Also - locomotives are NOT diesel driven. The traction motors are electric. Locomotives are deisel-electrics, just like all modern drilling rigs are. They are not gears/chains/transmissions mechanical drive systems.
SO all modern locomotives MOVE using electricity. The issue is where does the electricity come from.
Most high-speed rail uses overhead lines, but some have also used gas-turbines to generate the electricity. And he diesel electric trains, obviously, use diesel engines to power generators to make the electricity that the traction motors use.
Another factor is that using natural gas for transportation fuel on long-haul commercial applications such as rail and over-the-road trucks directly reduces the need to import oil for fuel. Great on one primary front. The money stays in the US, taxes are paid in the US, dollars are not exported from the US. Even if the cost was exactly the same, we would be better off using US-based fuels and not imported fuel stocks.
Also, LNG is storing liquefied natural gas in insulated tanks. It is not the same as storing natural gas under pressure, which is CNG. So there are some pretty big differences there. Of course the proper safety technology has to be incorporated.
The issue of hauling the fuel is a non-issue. 1-2-3 cars of LNG, versus XX tons of diesel, in a mile-long train, just really doesn't matter. This aspect is in the weeds.
1 million BTU = 12.1 gallons LNG = 42.4 lbs LNG
1 million BTU = 7.2 gallons diesel = 51.5 lbs diesel
Diesel - less volume to carry but more weight vs LNG.
Just in the case of a spill, LNG is not nearly as dangerous as CNG. It is not an explosion hazard It is more like diesel. It has to boil to make vapor, so it doesn't explode. CNG will quickly expand to a vapor cloud, just like propane etc. will, that can explode. But not LNG.
You can extinguish a pool of burning LNG with chemical extinguishers, but you NEVER EVER EVER put water on an LNG fire. That just makes the LNG boil and vaproize faster. Safer to just let it sit there and burn out. And of course LNG is smoke-free as it burns, NOT like diesel.
Experience with CNG conversions show the burning natural gas instead of gasoline reduces engine wear and maintenance issues, and increases lubricating oil life dramatically.
As far as switching from nukes in Europe and going to coal instead? They have to buy most of their natural gas from Russia at some high prices and with some degree of uncertainty in delivery, where the coal infrastructure is again already in place. They have yet to expand natural gas production by using the new technologies.
2011 Natural Gas Production Statistics
Russia - 669 billion M^3 (bcm)
USA - 651 bcm
European Union - 167 bcm
Canada - 160 bcm
“Since (its development began in 1998), natural gas from shale has been the fastest growing contributor to total primary energy (TPE) in the United States, and has led many other countries to pursue shale deposits. According to the IEA, the economical extraction of shale gas more than doubles the projected production potential of natural gas, from 125 years to over 250 years.”
So I am not saying this or that or the other is going to be the best way to use natural gas...
BUT it clearly is worthwhile to begin seriously looking at how to use natural gas options for long-haul transportation such as the railroad and trucking industries in North America.
Overall, I'm not at all sure that the GT/ST comes out mechanically more complex than a coal plant. Remember, there is a LOT of cleaning/scrubbing/ash removal etc. that is no longer necessary.
"Thermodynamics cant be evaded.
Nobody is evading thermodynamics. The simple fact is that the efficiency of a GT/ST natgas plant is a good deal higher than a ST coal plant.
"Storage of gas under pressure is still a larger problem than storing coal."
With natgas pipelined in, you don't NEED as much storage (if any).
Not huge complexity. Having duplex injection doesn't add all THAT much. And I suspect the efficiency was measured rather than calculated. But I haven't studied up all that much on the dual-injetion case...it is just something that I ran across while reading about other subjects.
Thanks for a great post.
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