While electric trains have become a common sight in commuter rail systems, the freight shipping industry has yet to embrace this eco-friendly technology. However, the tide is turning as Intramotev, a St. Louis-based company, aims to revolutionize the locomotive landscape with its fleet of battery-electric autonomous rail cars, eliminating the need for diesel fuel.
The Evolution of Diesel-Electric Trains:
Diesel-electric locomotives emerged in the 1920s as a more efficient alternative to steam-driven trains. They offered labor-saving capabilities and cost-cutting advantages. Unlike steam locomotives that required multiple crews, diesel-electric trains could be operated by a single locomotive coupled with others.
The Need for Further Improvement:
While diesel-electric trains represented an improvement over their steam-driven predecessors, there is still room for enhancement. A 2021 study published in Nature Energy highlights the current state of affairs, noting that diesel-electric drives in US locomotives emit 35 million tonnes of CO2 annually, leading to approximately 1,000 premature deaths and $6.5 billion in health damage costs.
The Shift Towards Battery-Electric Trains:
Until recently, the high cost and limited availability of renewable energy hindered the vision of diesel-free electric trains. However, technological advancements in battery technology and access to inexpensive renewable electricity have reversed the situation. The Nature Energy study suggests that a standard boxcar could be converted into an electric tender car, equipped with batteries to achieve an all-electric range of 241 kilometers.
Reaching Cost Parity and Environmental Benefits:
The study reveals that battery-electric trains could achieve cost parity with diesel-electric trains, considering future battery prices, access to fast-charging infrastructure, and wholesale electricity prices. Moreover, the environmental costs of diesel-electric trains would need to be factored in. Despite these considerations, electrification could prove financially advantageous. Switching to battery-electric propulsion could save the US freight rail sector $94 billion over 20 years, while also reducing criteria air pollutants and CO2 emissions.
Intramotev’s Innovative Approach:
Intramotev, which recently caught the attention of CleanTechnica, is at the forefront of electrification add-ons. Their TugVolt model offers retrofitted battery kits for existing electric railcars, enabling independent freight yard operations and integration into trains for long-distance travel. The ability to decouple rail cars adds efficiency, allowing them to travel closer to their destinations without relying on trucks for the final leg of the journey.
Integrated Systems and Promising Future:
Intramotev’s comprehensive suite of systems includes the ReVolt regenerative braking technology and automated safety systems, enhancing the overall package. The company received early-stage venture capital funding from Idealab X, accelerating the development of their commercial demonstration vehicle and proprietary rail autonomy software. Intramotev envisions a future where freight can move autonomously, making the system more efficient and environmentally friendly.
Advancing Towards Electric Freight Trains:
Intramotev recently secured a $200,000 grant from Michigan’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, facilitating the deployment of a mini-fleet of three TugVolt railcars to a Michigan-based mine later this year. With hundreds of thousands of idle railcars across the US, Intramotev aims to revolutionize traditional rail systems and extend its applications to mining, ports, and intermodal freight movement.
Intramotev’s pioneering efforts in battery-electric autonomous rail cars mark a significant step toward electrifying the freight shipping industry. By eliminating diesel fuel and leveraging advancements in battery technology and renewable energy, the company aims to make electric trains a cost-effective and environmentally friendly alternative. With further developments and increased adoption, electric freight trains could reshape the future of sustainable transportation.
By Impact Lab