Electrified Freight: Use batteries instead?

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Ryan

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Supplying power not from catenary or onboard batteries, but from towed battery cars is an interesting idea. Out of the box ideas like the flexibility to use either energy source or use the batteries to feed power back into the grid where necessary are fascinating as well.
 

jis

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Supplying power not from catenary or onboard batteries, but from towed battery cars is an interesting idea. Out of the box ideas like the flexibility to use either energy source or use the batteries to feed power back into the grid where necessary are fascinating as well.
Going full circle to use tenders like in steam engines. :)

Incidentally, FECR already uses a tender for carrying CNG fuel for its converted diesel engines to use this alternate fuel. They run through here in Melbourne every day with their crack double stack and TOFC trains.
 

George Harris

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Sometimes it seems that nothing has the durability of a bad idea.

There are numerous issues with this concept that suggest that is does not and is likely to never make economic or energy minimization sense. There are far more questions than those having answers. Here are a few points.

About the only positive I can see: At this point the energy produced by dynamic braking going downgrade is dissipated as heat. With battery power it can be used to charge/recharge the battery. That would reduce energy consumption in mountainous terrain.

A few of the negatives: You are hauling around a lot of weight. How far do you go on a charge? Batteries produce heat both when charging and discharging. Heat is energy lost. What is your source of electricity to charge the batteries? This last seems to be forgotten in all discussion on the wonders of battery powered vehicles.

What seems to be lost in many discussions is that we are already hauling things on rails by electric power. It is just that the motors are carrying the generators on their backs, so to speak. The current large diesel is pretty efficient, and its proximity to the point of consumption virtually eliminates transmission losses that occur when power is generated at large plants and then transmitted over long distances. If, and I mean IF you use battery power it would be advisable to carry the battery on the powered axles, because in freight service, the usual limitation on train size is adhesion between wheels and rails, which can and usually is defined as a percentage of the weight on powered axles. Therefore, electric freight engines frequently have weight added solely to increase their ability to start a train and move it on a grade. Remember if you have 3 six axle units on the front of a hundred car freight train you have 18 powered axles pulling 400 unpowered axles, or 4.5% powered axles. That is a very low ratio compared to that in passenger service. For passenger trains hauled by diesel or electric powered engines, the weight on driving axle is somewhere in the range of 25% of total train weight, thus 5 plus times the weight on drivers normal in freight service.

Where electricity does make sense for vehicles on rails is in commuter and high speed passenger service. Why? Because commuter and urban transit systems operate with many closely spaced stops and minimizing weight reduces energy needed to accelerate the trains. Use of EMU's, that is with most or all axles powered solves adhesion issues. With high speed services the power required to operate at high speeds requires power beyond that practical to haul around diesel generators. Also at high speeds adhesion again comes into play, as adhesion decreases with speed. That is why, again, EMU's make the most sense in true high speed, and I mean above 100 to 110 mph, services. (Aerodynamic resistance is related to the square of the speed, thus double the speed and you have four times the aerodynamic resistance. At high speeds the major component of train resistance is aerodynamic resistance.) In a 12 car Shinkansen train, the end cars are not powered. The rest of the axles are, and these cars are somewhat heavier than the end cars, giving you something on the order of 85% to 90% of total train weight on powered axles.
 

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Dense batteries on top of traction motors could function as helper slugs on steep grades to be recharged on decent or during regular braking for use on the next big start from a full stop. Resister banks provide zero traction.
 

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The trendy fascination with battery power for cars and every other means of transportation including this one, has yet to be assessed in the long term. The thought that they are more eco-friendly than fossil fuels may not stand up to scrutiny once the following questions are asked: 1. How is the power to charge them generated? 2. Are the materials to manufacture the batteries ethically-sourced? 3. How will expired batteries be disposed of?

If you live in North America, the most likely answers to Question 1 are generating stations powered by fossil fuels or nuclear power, with the latter although clean seeming to be equally unpopular with the "eco" crowd. Is this preferable to a Tier 4 diesel engine? The answer to Question 2 is one of those "inconvenient truths" touching on Third World resource exploitation and child labor. We won't know the answer to Question 3 for awhile, but where are all those batteries from Teslas and locomotive battery cars going to end up? The number is small now, but with countries like Canada banning fossil fuel-powered cars and trucks by 2035 and other internal combustion engines shortly thereafter, there are going to be a lot more battery-powered transportation modes in operation.
 

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The manufacturing of batteries - and their disposal is an issue - just like CFL light bulbs with their mercury and all plastics. The best thought I have heard is to make the manufacturers take back an equal amount of that product (not necessarily their own) as they produce and provide a bond for the disposal to insure against bankruptcy.

Of course, this means that the take-back requirements include acceptable recycling/disposal.

That rule should extend to manufacturers producing products in another country that may require them to pay for ships to take back the product if they can't recycle locally. To preclude that country from forbidding the return of the product, the bond and prohibition of import would insure against problems. To be fair, American products shipped to foreign countries would have to meet the same requirements.

As part of this, those selling the products should also have the responsibility to collect and return products to the manufacturers that they sell.

When companies know they will be inundated with returns for recycling, they will include that cost and come up with a plan to do so in their selling cost. Then the true cost of any product would represent not only its manufacturing and shipping costs but its cost of return and recycling.

Putting the burden on the product consumer/user is the worst alternative because it puts the burden on those least likely to have the capability to return it but makes it valuable to do so where possible. So if a company produces 100 million pounds of Li-ion batteries, it must take back that amount and safely recycle it. If that amount is not taken back because customers are not returning it, then the companies have to pay whatever price is needed to get it returned, thus offering an incentive to customers to return them.
 

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Is this preferable to a Tier 4 diesel engine?
Yes, 100%, always.

Most electrical power plants are burning natural gas about as efficiently as can be done. This results in about half the emissions of CO2 versus coal or other forms of energy. However, the real downside to diesel engines are the unavoidable Nitrous Oxides, Sulfur Dioxides and Diesel Particulate Matter present from even the cleanest burning diesel engine.

The emissions problems behind diesel engines are why cities are switching their bus fleets to natural gas.

Question 2 is a "six of one, half dozen of the other" kind of question. Is it possible to source ethically produced electronics and batteries for the diesel engine? No, it's always slave labor in China. (See the discussion of why the Fairphone is better described as the "Fairer phone") This question plagues pretty much anything with an on/off switch.

We won't know the answer to Question 3 for awhile, but where are all those batteries from Teslas and locomotive battery cars going to end up?
Q: Where did all the tube TVs and monitors end up? A: Recycled. But you wouldn't know that unless you were involved in those efforts in the early 2000s. Same for batteries. Battery recycling is already very much a thing and as far as materials go, there's almost always an energy gain to be had from recycling batteries. The science for recycling Lithium is advancing rapidly and is well-funded. Anytime you're charged a "core fee" for a battery, that's basically encouraging you to return batteries to be recycled and otherwise funding the efforts that do.

It is true that electrifying freight rail lines in the US doesn't make sense. However, with the battery solution, we may only need to electrify certain parts of the rail network to recharge batteries along with adding in charging technologies in railyards.

Conclusion: While CO2 reduction benefit may be negligible while we're still burning Natural Gas for electricity, this is definitely something we should do just to cut down on noxious diesel emissions AND bootstrap the infrastructure for when non-fossil-fuel based utility scale generation comes online.
 
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1. How is the power to charge them generated?
While it is possible to use batteries with dirty energy the key benefit is that they give you practical options for switching to clean energy sources when and where available while energy dense, commodity scale, clean burn biofuels have yet to materialize. In the case of my proposal above the energy would come from the traction motors that perform dynamic braking and normally waste megawatts of power on unproductive resister banks.

2. Are the materials to manufacture the batteries ethically-sourced?
It's hard to be more detrimental to workers and the environment than the petroleum cartels. 💩

3. How will expired batteries be disposed of?
Testing shows high recyclability, both in terms of reuse and remanufacture, which is much better than how expired petroleum is simply pumped into the air where the cancerous fumes enter our lungs and contributes to global warming. I strongly agree that this needs to be part of a viable solution though.

If you live in North America, the most likely answers to Question 1 are generating stations powered by fossil fuels or nuclear power, with the latter although clean seeming to be equally unpopular with the "eco" crowd.
Energy generation is more about the era in which you live rather than a geographic location. The vast majority power plants being built today are renewable and this will be difficult to reverse with fossil fuel prices skyrocketing. Nuclear power is a perfect storm of negatives and produces waste that will remain harmful beyond even the longest estimates of global warming. Every solution proposed for resolving nuclear power’s numerous construction, maintenance, liability, and storage problems has struggled to leave the laboratory and enter utility scale production at a reasonable cost.
 
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jiml

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While it is possible to use batteries with dirty energy the key benefit is that they give you practical options for switching to clean energy sources when and where available while energy dense, commodity scale, clean burn biofuels have yet to materialize. In the case of my proposal above the energy would come from the traction motors that perform dynamic braking and normally waste megawatts of power on unproductive resister banks.


It's hard to be more detrimental to workers and the environment than the petroleum cartels. 💩


Testing shows high recyclability, both in terms of reuse and remanufacture, which is much better compared to how expired petroleum is simply pumped into the air where the cancerous soot enters our lungs and the fumes contribute to global warming. I agree this needs to be part of the solution for long term viability.


Energy generation is more about the era in which you live rather than a geographic location. The vast majority power plants being built today are renewable and this will be difficult to reverse with fossil fuel prices skyrocketing. Nuclear power is a perfect storm of negatives and produces waste that will remain harmful beyond even the longest estimates of global warming. Every solution proposed for resolving nuclear power’s numerous funding, construction, maintenance, liability, and storage problems has struggled to leave the laboratory and enter utility scale production.
Valid points. I'm concerned there's a rush to implement the technology before many of these things are resolved. In the meantime:

 

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Nuclear power is a perfect storm of negatives and produces waste that will remain harmful beyond even the longest estimates of global warming. Every solution proposed for resolving nuclear power’s numerous construction, maintenance, liability, and storage problems has struggled to leave the laboratory and enter utility scale production at a reasonable cost.
Nice talking points, but where is the backup? I would love to see realistic data. As to the waste: This represents radioactive material which has exhausted so much of its radioactivity that it no longer produces sufficient heat to generate the steam to spin the turbine. Yes, it does have a long half life, but nuclear plants do not produce radioactive materials they consume it. The radioactivity from the residue material is not newly produced it has just been moved from its original location in the ground and transported to the plant. The problems with nuclear plants are political, not technical.
 

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Nice talking points, but where is the backup?
The paper Sources of Cost Overrun in Nuclear Power Plant Construction Call for a New Approach to Engineering has great background on the cost overruns behind nuclear.

The sad fact of the matter is most of the research behind nuclear went into big Pressurized Water Reactors and other thermal neutron reactors instead of the much safer, more efficient and more complicated fast-neutron reactors.

While I do think we should explore nuclear that does not generate as much waste, other renewables technologies have cost curves that make them much better alternatives for power generation.

The radioactivity from the residue material is not newly produced it has just been moved from its original location in the ground and transported to the plant.
Uh....what? Refining of nuclear fuel and the nuclear fission process itself absolutely DOES lead to ionizing radiation. Can you tell me where strontium-89 and strontium-90 or any other thermal fission byproducts are naturally occurring in quantities that are not only detectable but require extensive handling?
 

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Nice talking points, but where is the backup? I would love to see realistic data. As to the waste: This represents radioactive material which has exhausted so much of its radioactivity that it no longer produces sufficient heat to generate the steam to spin the turbine. Yes, it does have a long half life, but nuclear plants do not produce radioactive materials they consume it. The radioactivity from the residue material is not newly produced it has just been moved from its original location in the ground and transported to the plant. The problems with nuclear plants are political, not technical.
Fission does not consume radioactive materials. Maybe you're thinking of fusion but that remains unproven at utility scale generation. Spent fuel is even more radioactive than unspent fuel, but it's also less efficient and predictable at generating reliable levels of steam. The longest lived nuclear waste will remain harmful to human contact for millions of years while global warming is only expected to last thousands of years. There is no law that prevents nuclear power plants from being built today, and a few are still being built here and there, but the financials make no sense without taxpayer backed loans, insurance, and subsidies.
 
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jis

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Valid points. I'm concerned there's a rush to implement the technology before many of these things are resolved. In the meantime:

So perhaps we should stop shipping thing by ships too? Ever seen what happens to life expired ships on the beaches of Bangladesh?

Yes we do need to improve the situation across the board and we do have an opportunity to do it better this time around. But to argue that we should refrain from using something until everything is fully worked out first seems to be a bit unrealistic to me.
 
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peteypablo

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It’s so depressing for me to see how little progress we have made towards a rational approach to risk versus benefit assessment. Everything has costs and most things have benefits. Reading through this thread, it’s pretty apparent that humans magnify the benefits and minimize the risks of things they favor and do the opposite to things they dislike.

No one has come up with an energy source that is absolutely cheap, absolutely clean and absolutely reliable. There are always trade offs to be made and you have to have facts in order to intelligently assess those trade offs. If you find yourself brushing aside questions about reliability, cost or cleanliness of someone else’s preferred power source, you are probably not making an adult contribution to the discussion. We need to all be prepared to look at actual numbers and change our opinions when the numbers warrant. And accept less than perfect outcomes.
 

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Interesting response but I find your other posts on the matter even more insightful.

They're saying we're doomed. At least this is the claim of AOC. It's hard, of course, to nail down what Greta Thunberg is predicting, precisely, because no one will ask her a tough question, but she's pretty hysterical. And she seems to think it's just a matter of passing a bill and suddenly the problem is solved. Our entire standard of living is based on burning fossil fuels.
She's just a kid saying solve the damn problem like the adults we claim to be. It's up to us to find a way to make that happen through legislation, executive actions, international treaties, etc. Greta wasn't hired to solve the world's problems but the people who were refuse to act so there's not much left to do but call them out.

My prediction is we’re going to keep burning fossil fuels for decades and the IPCC will keep dialing back the dire nature of actual predictions, while left wing governments worldwide keep dialing the shrill tone of warnings, but that any predictions not worded like horoscopes - “I see stormy events in your future” - will not happen.
So climate change is a bogus partisan myth that has somehow conned 97% of the world's scientists for decades but can simply be ignored because the cult of inertia says so? What a mature perspective you bring to the table.

My personal measuring stick for when environmental groups really believe fossil fuels are destroying the planet: They embrace nuclear power and turn the cancel culture against anyone who fights nuclear power construction. It could happen. But I’m not holding my breath.
The one and only solution you'll accept is more nuclear power yet you feel entitled to tell the rest of us we're not mature enough to discuss it like adults. Sounds like you're part of the problem to me.
 
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peteypablo

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Interesting response but I find your other posts on the matter even more insightful.


She's just a kid saying solve the damn problem like the adults we claim to be. It's up to us to find a way to make that happen through legislation, executive actions, international treaties, etc. Greta wasn't hired to solve the world's problems but the people who were refuse to act so there's not much left to do but call them out.


So climate change is a bogus partisan myth that has somehow conned 97% of the world's scientists for decades but can simply be ignored because the cult of inertia says so? What a mature perspective you bring to the table.


The one and only solution you'll accept is more nuclear power yet you feel entitled to tell the rest of us we're not mature enough to discuss it like adults. Sounds like you're part of the problem to me.
No, my measuring stick for when environmental groups really believe fossil fuels are destroying the planet is when they accept the lesser evil of nuclear power. Don’t straw man me, please

And don’t straw man what I say about climate change. I’ve read the actual IPCC reports. I believe CO2 is increasing because of fossil fuel use, and I understand that each increase in solar radiation retention creates a new equilibrium temperature for the earth, everything else remaining equal. And I know what predictions carry low, medium and high confidence assessments. I also follow both global temperature and sea level predictions and compare them with actual temperatures (raw and adjusted) and tide gauges.

My challenge to you is to read the actual IPCC reports. Not the summaries, not the news reports on what could happen, and not the speeches of politicians. Read the summation of the actual science. What have the actual predictions been, not the outlier possibilities? And how have actual results matched those predictions? Is it fewer hurricanes but stronger hurricanes?How much stronger? More rain or less rain where you live? How much more or less?

Then do some actual math. Figure out how many solar panels or windmills we will need to provide all electrical needs, not just at capacity, but every single minute of every hour, day, month and year. Add batteries or other storage methods if you like, but no fair just waving your wand and saying, “there’s lots of ideas, so one of them will work.”

The reason politicians make promises and don’t follow through is that promises are easy and only have to have a loose relationship with truth. But if a politician tears down a system that, whatever its flaws, keeps the vast majority of us from freezing to death and has provided us with a steady though uneven increase in our standard of living, and leaves us with something that doesn’t work, or is so expensive that half of us can’t afford it, it is curtains for that politician, and it won’t help to whine about what the electorate said to do. That’s why the politicians don’t do it.

The path to a zero carbon future involves excruciating sacrifices. That’s why Germany is building coal fired plants to replace the nuclear plants it shuttered, Japan has dropped its plans to close all nuclear plants, California is setting up diesel generators as its Plan B, the Netherlands are burning wood to generate electricity (pretending it doesn’t produce CO2), while also raising their dikes by two meters, and utilities are going bankrupt in the UK.

The current plan seems to be to make all energy needs run through the electrical grid and generate all electricity with windmills and solar panels. My prediction is that we will accomplish that shortly before first contact with Vulcan and the creation of the United Federation of Planets. Some of my kids think it will happen, but they’re the ones who flunked math.

I’ll accept a solution other than nuclear power when someone actually shows how it works. And no fair pointing out that Iceland did it with geothermal or Norway with hydro. Those are geological oddities that can’t be scaled.
 
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me_little_me

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Nice talking points, but where is the backup? I would love to see realistic data. As to the waste: This represents radioactive material which has exhausted so much of its radioactivity that it no longer produces sufficient heat to generate the steam to spin the turbine. Yes, it does have a long half life, but nuclear plants do not produce radioactive materials they consume it. The radioactivity from the residue material is not newly produced it has just been moved from its original location in the ground and transported to the plant. The problems with nuclear plants are political, not technical.
In the ground, it it is not concentrated like in a reactor; not subject to the human errors that caused most of the nuclear disasters; not subject to accidental loss or unprotected exposure during transportation and storage; and not easily available as reactor waste to terrorist groups unless protected by high security while in use, while being transported; or while in storage. And storage facilities have repeatedly proven to be a problem in many cases because of leaks, both underwater and underground.

The only really safe use of nuclear reactors is on rockets into space and only when they get far enough out of earth's atmosphere that they would continue to move further and further and not be a danger by falling back to earth.

Lastly, one can see proof of the dangers of nuclear material by watching the old '50s movies of giant and/or deformed creatures wreaking havoc on cities and countries and causing incessant screaming by distressed leading actresses and minor actors and the need for heroic unbelievable solutions invented and successfully implemented on a moment's notice by leading actors. :)
 

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Conclusion: While CO2 reduction benefit may be negligible while we're still burning Natural Gas for electricity, this is definitely something we should do just to cut down on noxious diesel emissions AND bootstrap the infrastructure for when non-fossil-fuel based utility scale generation comes online.
What's the potential for using these battery cars to power locomotives for yard work? I would seem that one real benefit for electrifying freight railways is electrifying switchers, as railyards tend to be in populated areas that are more likely to have air quality problems, and the constant noise of the switchers running to and fro is probably a real hassle for the neighbors. As the people who live near railyards are more likely to be socioeconomically disadvantaged, there's probably an "environmental justice" angle, too. There is a hybrid switcher on the market (the "Green Goat"), but according to the wikipedia article, only 50 have been sold.
 

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Years ago when battery cars were first threatening to come out, I thought the best use of battery vehicles up front would be postal and other local delivery trucks, buses on routes that took them back to a common base and big city taxis not, as it turned out, to be a race for the longest distance on a charge in private vehicles.

Now that trains are really looking into battery power, it should be obvious that the initial test use would be yards, runs short enough to not exhaust the battery, runs where battery cars can be parked and recharged while a waiting charged car is available to replace it for the next or return leg, and even Amtrak trains that can do R/T to the NEC or other electrified service on batteries (Roanoke train? Norfolk/VA Beach train?) or whose trip length is short enough to reach its final destination on a single charge while still providing HEP.
 

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If it is feasible ... and if the idea is use a battery tender ... Amtrak could pull two tenders. One for the engine and one for HEP. Maybe even design the HEP tender to allow people to walk through and place it in the middle of the consist to make the wire runs to all cars shorter.
 

me_little_me

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If it is feasible ... and if the idea is use a battery tender ... Amtrak could pull two tenders. One for the engine and one for HEP. Maybe even design the HEP tender to allow people to walk through and place it in the middle of the consist to make the wire runs to all cars shorter.
Batteries on both sides with a hallway down the middle lined with pictures of the "good old days of rail travel" on the wall?
 

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Walls lined with video screens showing live camera views from the front and back of the train
Not a good idea. Encourages people standing in a corridor to stop for long periods blocking others from passing through.
 
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