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Thread: Charcoal in Steam Locomotives

  1. #1
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    Default Charcoal in Steam Locomotives

    Hi all,

    I’ve recently been thinking about something. As we all know, most steam locomotives use coal as their fuel of choice for heating up the water into steam. However, with the world’s coal supply ending eventually (not anytime soon… hopefully), could charcoal be a suitable substitute? After all, I’m pretty sure it burns as well, if not better than coal, and it is MUCH cleaner than coal. Plus, I’m pretty sure a locomotive on one of the American heritage lines (dunno the specifics - even though I live in the US, I’m far more interested in British railways) was tested with charcoal and had as good performance, if not better, than with regular coal. I dunno, I’m just spitballing. However, I do believe that charcoal could be the way of keeping some steam locomotives on the mainline.

    Feel free to add anything to the thread. I’m just wondering if it’s possible.

    Thanks,

    SRKing783

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    https://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/f...ues-d_169.html

    Remember though it burns to CO2 rather than CO2 plus H2O so not so good on the green house gas side.

    Locos tend to prefer a particular type of coal so might be fussy about Charcoal.

    Cheerio John

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    A specific type of coal, eh? Hmm… didn’t know about that. Or the emissions. So… charcoal might just be a no-go, correct?

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    Quote Originally Posted by SRKing783 View Post
    A specific type of coal, eh? Hmm… didn’t know about that. Or the emissions. So… charcoal might just be a no-go, correct?
    The type of coal steam locomotives use is called "steam coal", which is in between bituminous coal and anthracite coal.
    Owner of Freeman Locomotive Works.

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    Quote Originally Posted by jordon412 View Post
    The type of coal steam locomotives use is called "steam coal", which is in between bituminous coal and anthracite coal.

    In the UK the coal from certain mines was favoured by many companies. I understand the firebox design influenced the type of coal used.

    Cheerio John

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    Quote Originally Posted by johnwhelan View Post
    In the UK the coal from certain mines was favoured by many companies. I understand the firebox design influenced the type of coal used.

    Cheerio John
    I know that the Wootten Firebox was designed specifically to burn anthracite coal. This wide firebox, which needed to be wide because anthracite burned slowly, yet really hot, resulted in the 'camelback' steam locomotive that was common to railroads that served the anthracite coal region.
    Owner of Freeman Locomotive Works.

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    Interesting concept, but also another thing to take into consideration is the fact, with coal fired steam engines, is the dirty job of getting rid of the ash which had to be cleaned out of the firebox at the end of the steam engine's run, on oil fired steam, there's hardly any, that eliminated that time consuming process so no ash pit required but other factors that had railroad companies transition to diesel power still remained, such as time consuming maintainance, waiting for hours before the engine was ready to go, that's what killed the steam era and diesels took over in the end, oh and I forgot to mention cleaning the them after a run to rid of the dirt, grease, and of course there's the issue of thermal efficientnacy.
    Last edited by UP5521; October 23rd, 2021 at 12:51 AM.

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    Biggest problem I see to charcoal is temperature. Don't know the exact figures but I seem to remember that charcoal burns (in open air) ~500F while coal can be 2,000F or more, depending on the type of coal. railroads didn't switch form wood burners to coal because they cared for the trees, coal burns hotter and takes up less space in the tender for the same distance. For a small loco this might not be a problem, but something like a northern might not even be able to get up to operating pressure or have far less steam to work with once they got rolling.

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    I recently had another revelation - would using an electric heater in place of a firebox be a good way to turn water into steam? Yes, it would probably make the actual locomotive heavier, but it does mean that the coal bunker could be converted to a water tank, meaning more water could be converted into steam, meaning more steam can be made, meaning it could travel farther. Again, I know that putting an electric heater in a steam locomotive would cost a lot of money, and you would have the question of how you would power it (I was thinking an electric battery), but… Teslas are much heavier cars, and everyone buys them rather than a nice car, like a Mercedes. But this isn’t a forum for cars, this is a forum for trains. I was using that as an example.

    But yeah. Using an electric heater in substitution of coal, placed in the firebox, to heat steam quicker and also have a consistent temperature too (as it’s fully electric - no flame at all.) Debate with me on this as well.

    Thank you.
    Last edited by SRKing783; November 8th, 2021 at 07:27 PM. Reason: Spelling mistakes. This is why you shouldn’t be typing on a phone, like I have for my past few threads. Not posts. Threads.

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    Narcolepsy is not napping.



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    I… never knew that a straight-up electric steam locomotive powered by a pantograph existed. But I guess it means it is possible… albeit making it look at bit ugly. But thank you for posting this picture anyways.

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    Quote Originally Posted by SRKing783 View Post
    I… never knew that a straight-up electric steam locomotive powered by a pantograph existed. But I guess it means it is possible… albeit making it look at bit ugly. But thank you for posting this picture anyways.
    If memory serves me right, the locomotive still has a coal bunker for sidings that weren't electrified.
    Owner of Freeman Locomotive Works.

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    It was a solution to a problem only the Swiss really had.

    http://www.douglas-self.com/MUSEUM/L...c/swisselc.htm

    Basically in WW2 the Swiss railways where very much electrified, running off hydro damns, but they used 0-6-0's steamers for switching. During WW2 when they where surrounded by the Axis (who where not really into sharing at the time) They couldnt get much coal. Either they needed to make fully electric switchers, witch would cost a decent amount and they would still need to get metals from country's desperately low on, well, everything at the time, or convert the little steamers to run on overhead power for much less of those metals, they would just be far less efficient, but that wasn't a problem at the time.

    Great solution to an odd problem that never really came up again. If your going though the expense of stringing up wire, you (should) already have fully electric loco's on the way, putting a 2nd energy transition into steam doesn't really make sense. Keep the steam loco's running on your choice of fuel until the savings from your electrified power allow you to replace them as well.

  14. #14

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    The use of charcoal as locomotive fuel is simply not practical. There is far less heating value per given cubic unit of charcoal then wood, coal, or fuel-oil. You would need massive tenders, not to mention the pre-processing to actually produce the charcoal. I suspect too, that it would burn down very quickly given the draft in a locomotive firebox when moving at speed. You would also need spark arrestors, and I suspect would produce far more fly-ash and other waste product per unit-mile than conventional fuel.

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