Northern Illinois University

Northern Today

Cliff Mirman
Cliff Mirman


Engineering gets $1 million grant
to make locomotives leaner, greener

September 22, 2008

by Joe King

NIU’s College of Engineering and Engineering Technology has received a $1 million grant to help the American railroad industry find ways to squeeze more miles from a gallon of fuel and reduce the pollution produced by locomotives.

The grant, from the U.S. Department of Energy, has launched a college-wide effort that will examine options ranging from developing improved lubricants for locomotives and rails to harnessing the power of fuel cells to eliminate diesel engines altogether.

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. With diesel locomotive fuel currently priced at about $3 per gallon, even a 1 percent improvement in gas mileage could save the industry $120 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 amount of allowable soot by 90 percent and require an 80 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions.

Promod Vohra, dean of the college, 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 the 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.”

The project has been broken down into five key tasks, with teams of faculty and students collaborating on each.

Alternate Fuel

Bio-diesel could potentially provide a less costly alternative fuel for locomotives, but the switch would require many logistical changes. A team of six NIU professors will take a systems engineering approach to that problem examining issues such as: how to convert existing fuel depots to accommodate the greener fuel; how to cope with the limited shelf-life of biodiesel products; and whether or not additional fuel depots would be required.

Project Team: David Schroeder, Richard Marcellus, Robert Tatara, Dennis Cesarotti, Omar Ghrayeb, Federico Sciammarella,

Fuel Cells

One of the best ways to eliminate diesel fuel costs (and the environmental impact of burning that fuel) would be to eliminate the fuel all together. While that might sound far-fetched, a switching engine powered by fuel cells is already commercially available.

To learn if that success can be translated to trans-continental locomotives, a team of NIU engineering professors will evaluate different types of high temperature fuel cells (which rely less on precious metals than low temperature models and produce more heat, which also can be harnessed for power) for use in locomotive power systems. They will study performance, cost, reliability and durability of various fuel cells.

“We aren’t so much interested in creating new types of fuel cells, but rather in harnessing existing cells for this task,” said Donald Zinger, a professor of electrical engineering who is leading the team. “We hope to devise a power source that is more efficient, that eliminates the greenhouse gases that locomotives create and which is less costly in the long run.”

Project Team: Pradip Majumdar, Donald Zinger, Liping Guo, David Schroeder

Use of Alternative materials

At their most basic, diesel locomotives are nothing more than massive, long-life power plants on wheels. Improving the durability and performance of the components of those power plants could lead to significant long-term savings for railroad.

Toward that end, a team of seven NIU faculty will study the feasibility of using materials such as ceramics, high strength steel and aluminum, titanium and composites to improve components such as pistons, valve guides and cylinder heads. They also will look at ways to modify the shape of locomotive bodies, creating more aerodynamic surfaces to reduce drag, while increasing the life of certain key components.

Project Team: Federico Sciammarella, Andrew Otieno, Meung Jung Kim, Cliff Mirman, Sarveswara Kilaparti, Omar Ghrayeb, Richard Marcellus

Reducing emissions and heat loss

Anyone who has ever stood on a street corner as a bus passed by knows that diese- powered vehicles generate substantial heat and exhaust gasses. A team of seven engineering professors from NIU will examine those issues, looking for ways to harness the waste heat from locomotives and reduce the emissions generated by them.

“Faculty involved in this project have extensive experience in areas such as energy technology; simulation and modeling of thermal and combustion processes; thermal management and nanotechnology – all of which will be crucial to our success,” said team leader Pradip Majumdar, a professor of mechanical engineering.

Project Team: Robert Tatara, David Schroeder, Pradip Majumdar, Milivoje Kostic, Meung Jung Kim, Dennis Cesarotti


Most people understand the term “grease the rails” to mean “make things easier.” However, few realize that it has its roots in the day-to-day operation of railroads, which actually do rely upon lubricants to make wheels move smoothly across rails and reduce wear.

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.

The faculty on our team have years of experience in tribology (the study of friction, wear and lubrication) and extensive experience working with nano-particle lubricants – both in the lab and in industry.

NIU is a partner in the operation of the Center for Tribology and Coatings, a not-for-profit entity operated as a partnership between Sugar Grove-based Falex Corp. and the NIU College of Engineering and Engineering Technology.

Project Team: Federico Sciammarella, Pradip Majumdar, David Schroeder, Sarveswara Kilaparti, Milivoje Kostic, Meung Jung Kim, Dennis Cesarotti, Omar Ghrayeb, Richard Marcellus

Assisting faculty in their research will be a number of graduate and undergraduate students who will get an opportunity to do hands-on research and analysis.

“One of the hallmarks of our programs is that students get the opportunity to gain real world experience, and nothing is more real than this,” Mirman said. “These students will have an opportunity to aid one of the largest, and most important, transportation sectors in the world.”