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Nigeria has fast become Africa’s largest economy, but its infrastructure is still lagging.

The electrical grid is so unpredictable that many businesses use natural gas to produce their own power. But that’s not enough. Sand and water often clog up pipelines and idle generators for weeks at a time. In many parts of the country diesel is still the best and most reliable fuel.

But it’s also expensive. That’s why GE engineers recently converted a powerful diesel engine from a locomotive into an efficient stationary power plant that can produce enough electricity to supply a factory, or 6,600 Nigerian homes.

The project was also an exercise in FastWorks, a set of tools and principles currently transforming GE culture into a leaner and faster company working close to customers.

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GE engineers switched the Jenbacher J616 gas-fired reciprocating engine (above) to diesel in 2007. They used the efficient and powerful engine to power the PowerHaul locomotive (below). Top Image: GE’s new diesel engines from the PowerHaul will generate electricity for two Nigerian flour mills.

In late 2012, engineers at two GE businesses units, Distributed Power and GE Transportation, noticed that there was demand for efficient diesel generators in Africa’s growing markets. “We had to move quickly,” says Cory Nelson, general manager for diesel engines at Distributed Power. “Instead of starting with a blank canvas, we looked around for pieces of technology that we might have on the shelf.”

They found the 130-ton PowerHaul diesel-electric locomotive, which GE Transportation developed in the U.S. in 2007 and sold to railroads in the U.K., Turkey and South Korea. The locomotive was powered by a modified reciprocating diesel engine built by Distributed Power’s Jenbacher unit in Austria.

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Engineers recently converted the PowerHaul’s engine into a stationary power plant that will supply distributed power to two Nigerian flour mills.

The joint team pulled out the locomotive’s engine, re-engineered it, and turned it into a stand-alone power station. They took the best from both businesses – the diesel technology, train engine-grade pumps and piping from GE Transportation. The reciprocating engine and air system came from Jenbacher. Then they together tuned the finished product, called 616 Diesel Engine, to enhance performance.

The process allowed the team to cut the development cycle by half. “We know how to do this,” says James Gamble, an engineer at GE Transportation who had converted locomotive engines for marine power plants and other stationary applications.

GE just announced that Flour Mills of Nigeria Plc., whose popular Golden Penny brand of flour is sold all over the country, will be the first customer for five of the new engines

Flour Mills is already using 11 Jenbacher gas engines to generate 30 megawatts of power for its Apapa Mills outside of Lagos. The first three new diesel engines will produce backup power for Apapa. The other two will generate 5 megawatts of baseload electricity for a mill in Kano in the north of the country.

Says Distributed Power’s Andreas Eberharter, “There is no gas infrastructure in Kano. These engines will be their primary source of power.”