Using biomass to take cane trains beyond diesel

1 September 2022

Diesel is impressive. Impressive in its abundance, energy density and liquid transportability. These unique features have made it ubiquitous to heavy transport and traction in the 20th and 21st centuries.

This powerful substance now runs the agricultural machinery that feeds 7.5 billion people worldwide and overall, it does the work equivalent to having an extra 50 billion manual labourers on the planet. Every product in existence now relies on diesel, at some stage of its journey, to reach the market. Diesel’s grip on our world is impressive indeed.

Pacific Island Nations entered the diesel-powered global economy without much say in the matter and today they pay the highest price in the world for their participation. As the price of diesel reaches all-time highs and continues to rise steadily, so do global temperatures and sea levels.

Diesel’s immense contribution to the climate crisis, which already disrupts life in Pacific Island Nations and will continue to do so for centuries to come, makes it completely unviable as a future fuel. This raises questions; when diesel duly departs, what will fill the void that it leaves behind? And is this “solution” practical, affordable and appropriate for the Pacific?

Mackwell Locomotive Co, a New Zealand based company, may offer a pragmatic solution to this predicament. They specialise in the design, development and construction of zero-carbon locomotives which run on solid-biofuels. Solid-biofuels are regenerative, transportable and completely carbon neutral as the next season’s growth cycle absorbs the previous season’s emissions.

Local communities can purpose grow them as a market good or they can be sourced from industry waste streams. In the Pacific Region, wood-chip, coconut husk and sugarcane bagasse can all be sourced in bulk from the forestry, coconut and sugar industries.

Solid-biofuels require minimal effort to produce. You simply grow, tend to and harvest the crop before processing it (e.g. through a chipper) to make it ready for consumption. As a result, solid-biofuels typically have an Energy-ROI of >25:1. This means for every unit of energy invested in producing the fuel, you will receive at least 25 units of profit energy back. Liquid biofuels in comparison require complex factories to refine energy crops and provide an unsustainable Energy-ROI of 2:1 or less.

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Source: Micronesian Center for Sustainable Transport