First corn-powered train closer to reality

Corn-Powered Locomotive on Track in 2010
National Corn Growers Association
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LANSING, MICH. – The Corn Marketing Program of Michigan (CMPM) strives to create partnerships with companies and other organizations for the betterment of Michigan’s corn industry. The CMPM has been working with AHL-TECH as they develop the world’s first cost-effective, ethanol-electric hybrid locomotive.  “AHL-TECH has developed an ethanol-hybrid locomotive to capitalize on the growing ethanol market in the United States and to replace the railroad industry’s aging diesel-electric locomotive fleet,” said Tom Mack, president and CEO of AHL-TECH. The current diesel-electric locomotives that form the backbone of the railroad fleet range from 1,000 to 4,400 horsepower (hp). The diesel engines are connected to large generators that drive electric motors that are directly attached to the locomotive’s axles.

Much like diesel-electric locomotives, an ethanol-fueled engine powers a generator connected to the locomotive’s axles. However, unlike the diesel-electrics, AHL-TECH’s ethanol-hybrid also has a battery component. Instead of a direct correlation between the speed of the engine and the power transmitted by the generator, AHL-TECH’s design features the capacity to store electricity when the generator produces more power than is being used. This gives the locomotive the ability to power the axles by running the engine or using power stored in the main battery. It also allows for regenerative braking – capturing the energy lost when a locomotive is brought to a halt.

AHL-TECH completed the overall design of a 4,000 hp, 6-axle locomotive (3,000 hp from six ethanol generators plus 1,000 hp from hybrid batteries) in 2008. This high horsepower locomotive features a brand new AHL-TECH designed cab and frame, meeting all 2009 crashworthiness requirements for U.S. locomotives. In addition to the high horsepower locomotive, AHL-TECH has also designed a package to retrofit low horsepower (1,000-1,500 hp) switcher locomotives utilizing the same components as the higher horsepower locomotive. “We are very excited about the potential to retrofit hundreds of extremely old switcher locomotives in the United States with clean, 21st century ethanol technology,” said Mack.

Since completing its low and high horsepower designs in 2008, AHL-TECH has continued its development, education and sales efforts for its revolutionary line of ethanol-electric hybrid locomotives. In 2009, AHL-TECH was able to carry out two key steps in the development of its hybrid locomotive; major studies on both the battery system and the EMCap energy storage system.

The EMCap study was performed by the University of Toledo and the Compressor Control Company of Chelsea, Mich. The result of the study was a definitive bill-of-materials, energy duration model and a completed cost model for the EMCap system.

The second study focused on the battery and included the manufacturing of the first prototype battery tray by Crown Battery of Fremont, Ohio, along with five in-depth testing cycles of the tray. “The testing showed that our use of low cost lead acid batteries is based on solid engineering and modeling,” said Mack. “The batteries can definitely deliver the power needed and the economics are where we need them to be.”

While the second study illustrated the feasibility of AHL-TECH’s battery system, the recent economic downturn has helped to illustrate the marketability of the ethanol design. The recent volatility of oil markets, with sudden spikes over $140 a barrel and abrupt drops below $40 per barrel, has shown people how dangerous our dependence on foreign oil can be. Though those markets have somewhat stabilized in recent months, it cannot compete with corn and ethanol prices which have remained remarkably steady in comparison. This stability has helped to calm the fears of people who thought there would not be enough ethanol available or that prices would get out of hand. With quieted fears and steady wholesale pricing, ethanol has proven to be very attractive to fuel buyers, even against the cost of diesel.

Mack admits there are still several challenges ahead. “I think the biggest difficulty lies in education. When AHL-TECH talks about its locomotives, the first thing people ask is how a ‘low’ BTU value fuel like ethanol can compete with a ‘high’ BTU fuel like diesel, but they miss the point that four factors are actually involved that make ethanol the right fuel choice. BTU is one factor, but so are the cost of the fuel itself per gallon, engine efficiency, and finally, the cost of emissions control on the engine. So while ethanol is a lower BTU fuel than diesel, it is also much lower in cost per gallon,” explained Mack. Based on data from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, AHL-TECH created a new emissions model for its ethanol locomotive engine that shows it can be ten times cleaner in NOx emissions than is required under the Environmental Protection Agency Tier 4 locomotive engine emissions guidelines and can virtually eliminate particulate matter. “We don’t need to add costly filters or catalytic reduction systems to do this. That means less cost for the engines and a lower cost of maintenance. It’s a win-win-win situation,” said Mack

As work continues on the AHL-TECH project, the CMPM is excited for what the future holds. “With ethanol already utilized in more than 80 percent of the nation’s automobile fuel supply, we feel ethanol-powered locomotives are a very promising new ethanol market,” stated Clark Gerstacker, CMPM president; National Corn Growers Association Corn Board Member; and corn farmer from Midland. “Since corn is the major feedstock for American ethanol production, AHL-TECH’s ethanol-hybrid locomotive may open the door to a new untapped market for Michigan corn. The CMPM is thrilled to be part of this ground-breaking project.”

Headquartered in Lansing, the CMPM is a legislatively-established statewide program that utilizes one-cent per bushel of Michigan corn sold. Investments are made in the areas of research, education, market development, and new uses in an effort to enhance the economic position of Michigan corn farmers. The CMPM works cooperatively with the Michigan Corn Growers Association (MCGA), a grassroots-membership association representing the state’s corn grower’s political interests since the 1970’s. Michigan’s corn industry adds more than one billion dollars to the state’s economy annually and in 2009, Michigan’s corn farmers harvested a record setting crop of more than 309 million bushels. For more information, visit the website of the MCGA and the CMPM at


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