Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs


News Release

Contact: Joe King, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-4299

October 1, 2008

NIU gets $1 million to study hybrid locomotives

DeKalb, Ill. — Might hybrid locomotives start competing for space on the nation’s railways the same way that hybrid cars are starting to pop up on roadways? Perhaps … at least if the Northern Illinois University College of Engineering and Engineering Technology has anything to say about it.

The college has received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to help the American railroad industry find ways to squeeze more miles from a gallon of fuel and reduce the pollution produced by locomotives. Fuel cells are one of five key ideas being studied by teams of faculty at NIU’s DeKalb campus to achieve these goals.

Cutting fuel costs and reducing pollution are key concerns for the railroad industry. According to data collected by the Federal Surface Transportation Board, a diesel locomotive can move a ton of freight 436 miles using a single gallon of diesel fuel. As impressive as that statistic is, the industry is looking to push it higher. At current prices, even a 1 percent improvement in fuel efficiency could save the industry more than $100 million a year.

As for emissions, just this year the Environmental Protection Agency passed regulations requiring all new or refurbished diesel locomotives to meet pollution standards that slash the allowable amount of soot by 90 percent and require an 80 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions.

Promod Vohra, dean of NIU’s engineering school, believes his faculty can help to bring about those improvements.

“Our faculty bring a unique set of skills to this task, one that is well suited to helping the industry address both of these needs,” Vohra said. “We are very excited about this opportunity and look forward to devising some ground-breaking solutions.”

The college has partnered with the Norfolk and Southern Railroad to facilitate their work on the project.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better partner for this project,” said Cliff Mirman, chair of CEET’s Department of Technology, who is overseeing the project. “They have given us access to equipment, to facilities, to laboratories – everything we have needed. They are very interested in lowering their operating costs, so we are very lucky to have them as collaborators.”

Faculty teams, assisted by students, will explore:

  • Fuel Cells: Some rail yards are already using fuel cells to power switching engines. NIU professors will study the feasibility of using that technology to power transcontinental locomotives, focusing specifically on high temperature fuel cells, which rely less on precious metals and which produce more heat, which can be harnessed for increased power. They will study performance, cost, reliability and durability of various fuel cells.
  • Alternative Fuels: NIU faculty will analyze different types of alternative fuels, including bio-diesel, looking not only at engine performance but at logistical changes that would be required to accommodate greener fuels.
  • Alternative materials: NIU faculty will study ways to extend the durability and improve the performance of diesel locomotives by using materials such as ceramics, high strength steel and aluminum, titanium and composites to improve pistons, valve guides, cylinder heads and other engine parts. They also will look at ways to modify the shape of locomotive bodies, creating more aerodynamic surfaces to reduce drag.
  • Reducing emissions and heat loss: A team of seven engineering professors from NIU will explore ways to harness the waste heat from locomotives and reduce the emissions generated by them.
  • Tribology. A team of nine NIU engineering professors will study the efficiency of lubricants currently used by the railroad industry and will investigate whether different lubricants, including those utilizing nano-particles, can reduce wear and increase efficiency under the diverse conditions and loads experienced along rail lines.

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