Time magazine’s list of the “50 Best Inventions of 2010” has a veritable smorgasbord of exciting innovations, including a James Bond-style jet pack, Google’s driverless car, and a GE locomotive that’s running on a biofuel mix made from rendered beef fat.
The Heartland Flyer, which is currently in use by Amtrak, has been doing its daily run through “beef country” — Oklahoma City to Fort Worth, Texas — on a 20 percent biodiesel mix since spring.
The locomotive is the first daily interstate passenger train to run on renewable biodiesel fuel in the U.S. GE is helping document the engine’s performance for Amtrak, with previous tests on a stationary engine showing that the biofuel reduced hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide each by 10 percent, reduced particulates by 15 percent and sulfates by 20 percent.
GE Transportation’s Pete Lawson explains that typical GE locomotives are designed to run about eight to ten years before an overhaul, so if using a biofuel blend shortens that running time in any way, it’s a cost that customers don’t want to incur.
Lawson says that Amtrak intentionally used an unmodified engine — which was first delivered in 1991 — so that they “could see how the biofuel would react with the current engines they have running.”
“Big diesel engines can burn just about anything,” Lawson says. “So what we are looking for in biofuel tests is the effect on engine performance, the long-term effect on maintenance, and the cost — that’s the million dollar question.”
If the right mix can do the job, rail customers are interested. “The appeal of biofuels comes down to it being a renewable fuel source; it lessens dependence on foreign oil; and it has the potential to lower some regulated emissions,” he said.
In addition to the Amtrak project, the GE team has performed other biofuel tests in the field that include detailed baseline measurements of all of an engine’s components before the fuel is used and then taking the same measurements every six months.
“What we look for is any change in the wear rates of the components or acceleration of the build-up of deposits caused by the biofuel. We test the oil every 7 to 10 days to see if any rapid degradation has occurred.” They’re also on the lookout for any plastic or rubber components, such as seals, hoses and gaskets that may show any unusual wear, as some biofuels are more likely to attack those materials.
The locomotive biofuels work follows recent breakthroughs in aviation biofuels research. Using GE engines, Brazil’s TAM airlines flew the first Latin American flight with a fuel derided from the non-edible Jatropha curca plant. GE Aviation is also working with the U.S. Navy on biofuels for its GE-powered F18 Super Hornets. In 2008, Virgin Atlantic flew its GE CF6-powered Boeing 747 from London to Amsterdam, becoming the first airline in the world to fly on biofuel.