CSR and NRRI Forge Ahead with Biofuel Research, Matching Grant Announced

The Coalition for Sustainable Rail and its research collaborators at the Natural Resources Research Institute are forging ahead with their biofuel initiatives, including pursuit of a wood-based substitute for use in coal-fired steam locomotives. Following a retooling of its large torrefaction reactor, NRRI recently hosted an event announcing the commissioning of the reactor.

NRRI initially began commissioning the reactor in Fall 2016, providing CSR some of the very first torrefied biomass made in the machine. Following those initial trials, the torrefaction reactor was taken out of service for modification and additional testing. One year later, the reactor and a new densification machine are again ready to generate fuels for testing.

The densified fuel made for CSR that was used in the second Zoo trials last fall were quite friable. NRRI has since devised a more advanced way to densify the material.

The densified fuel made for CSR that was used in the second Zoo trials last fall were quite friable. NRRI has since devised a more advanced way to densify the material.

The new densification unit creates very uniform, half-pill-shaped pellets that burn very much like coal. When burning, this fuel reacts much the same way as coal.

The new densification unit creates very uniform, half-pill-shaped pellets that burn very much like coal. When burning, this fuel reacts much the same way as coal.

A key portion of the retooling has been the installation of a more advanced densification unit that is able to create pellets with a uniform, and highly compressed profile. This will allow the fuel to burn more like coal and minimize spark emissions, especially when used in a railroad environment.

To test this theory, CSR is heading back to the Milwaukee County Zoo late this Fall to undertake another round of fuel experiments. This testing will serve to verify the viability of this new fuel in anticipation of standard gauge tests at the Everett Railroad in the New Year.

In support trials in Milwaukee and at the Everett Railroad, an anonymous rail industry sponsor has offered a matching grant to CSR. They have offered to match every dollar CSR raises (up-to $10,000) between now and December 15, 2017, dollar-for-dollar.

This is a great opportunity to support CSR's research and help develop a technology to keep historic steam locomotives on the rails for years to come. Every bit helps - $50 buys new thermocouples, $200 buys sensor wiring, and $2,000 pays to ship seven tons of fuel from Minnesota to Pennsylvania. 

Research Team Completes First Milestone of $1.9 Million Grant to Develop Locally Sourced Electricity and Solid Biofuel


D U L U T H,  M I N N. | April 19, 2017 –The Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota is Principal Investigator and leader on a $1.9 million Renewable Development Fund grant funded through Xcel Energy to develop a Biofuel Conversion Center at the NRRI Coleraine Lab. The Coalition for Sustainable Rail is one of two industry partners aiding NRRI on the grant; its responsibility includes designing and building a 100 kW steam-electric boiler generator. The other industry partner, SynGas Technology, LLC, is championing development of a proprietary moving bed torrefaction reactor to supply fuel to the boiler generator. This month, the NRRI Development Team completed the first milestone of the Grant: Preliminary Engineering.

“I am excited by the engineering progress seen in the grant work to-date,” explained Don Fosnacht, Ph.D., NRRI Associate Director, CSR Board Member, and the project’s Principal Investigator. “The steam-electric generator the CSR engineering team is designing will be a one-of-a-kind addition to our Biofuel Conversion Center, and it will serve as an important research tool in the development of remote, distributed generation systems.”


  • CSR has been awarded a $405,000 portion of a $1.9 million grant from Xcel Energy’s Renewable Development Fund

  • CSR is designing and building a modern 100 kW steam-electric boiler generator that runs on torrefied biomass

  • This release comes as the NRRI Team completed the first grant milestone

  • The boiler generator will build upon the principles of advanced locomotive-style boiler and compound engine

  • Zoo train trials also served to provide key biofuel combustion metrics for the boiler generator

The steam-electric generator being developed by CSR will employ an advanced locomotive-style boiler and compound expansion piston steam engine to generate sufficient power to make 100 kW of electricity. The boiler is designed to burn torrefied biomass fuel in a Gas Producer Combustion System and will be able to operate automatically, thanks to an additional $25,000 National Instruments Green Engineering Grant awarded to CSR in support of the RDF project.

“The Xcel grant provides a significant opportunity to push the state-of-the-art in firetube boiler, compound reciprocating steam engine, solid fuel combustion, and distributed generation system design,” said Wolfgang Fengler, MSME, CSR Senior Mechanical Engineer. “Developing an efficient boiler-generator package that can fit into a 20 foot shipping container is no small task, but our experienced team brings a diverse skillset that has translated into an innovative concept which we are eager to fashion into a working prototype.”

The NRRI RDF Grant is broken into multiple milestones, including preliminary engineering, detailed engineering, fabrication, testing, and steady state operation phases. CSR is currently focusing on the detailed engineering and fabrication milestones. Fabrication of boiler, engine, and electrical components is set to begin this summer.

“What the RDF grant has enabled CSR to do is really push boiler and steam piston engine design as can only be achieved through new-build construction,” explained CSR Technical Advisor Hugh Odom, P.E. “I am honored to serve as the Professional Engineer on this project, working with the CSR engineering team in a capacity to verify compliance of the design with ASME and other applicable codes.”

When completed, the boiler generator unit will be installed at NRRI’s Biofuel Conversion in Coleraine, Minnesota, where it will undergo commissioning and steady state operations. That facility is a former Oliver Iron Mining Railroad maintenance complex which has been converted into a one-of-a-kind minerals and biofuel research center by NRRI.

The Biofuel Conversion Center of the Natural Resources Research Institute is housed in the former railroad shops of the Oliver Iron Mining Company in Coleraine, Minnesota. Shown here is the main hall, which serves to house the large torrefaction reactor (center) that can create 14 tons of torrefied material per day. The boiler generator and additional torrefaction reactor will also be housed in this one-of-a-kind reserach facility.