A team of researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California have found that battery-powered trains could become economically affordable as early as 2023. In a paper published in the journal Nature Energy, the group argues that improved battery technology and cheaper, renewable energy sources could soon allow the battery to compete with diesel for power trains.

The researchers published an article that outlines the reasons for the switch to battery-powered trains and provides an overview of the work the team has done on this new effort.

Trains, scientists say, carry about 40 percent of intercity cargo in the United States, and sending cargo by train is cheaper than by truck. Most of the freight trains in the US run on diesel fuel, which accounts for about 0.6 percent of total US carbon emissions, they said. In this new work, the researchers suggest that switching to battery power could prevent these emissions.

Electric trains are powered by overhead lines - an expensive and inefficient system. The team suggests batteries may be the best option; in particular, they argue that a single locomotive equipped with a 14-megawatt battery system will be sufficient to replace a diesel-powered train.

They also claim that such a locomotive can carry a train about 240 kilometers on a single charge. This method consumes half the energy of a diesel train. And if the battery is charged using a renewable resource, it will reduce the carbon footprint of the electric train to zero.

The researchers note that most modern diesel locomotives actually run on electricity - diesel is used to power on-board generators.

Thus, for most locomotives, all that is required is to replace the generators and add a special covered wagon just behind the locomotive to carry a large battery. Adding additional boxcars with batteries would increase the train's range.

They also point out that the batteries could be recharged at certain stops if fast chargers were developed for such large batteries.

Alternatively, battery-powered freight cars could be replaced with new ones at designated stops, significantly reducing waiting times. The researchers acknowledge that, at least in the near future, the operating costs for battery-powered trains will be slightly higher than usual, but they suggest that environmental improvements are worth it.

The study was published in Nature Energy. (Arseny Shchukin)

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