Battery Powered Locomotive Does the Job, but Quietly

From a distance, Norfolk Southern Railway’s No. 999 looks like any other big and powerful locomotive. But move closer and it is easy to discern what is missing: the usual diesel noise and emissions.

This is because No. 999 is the first all-electric, battery-powered locomotive in the United States intended for heavy-duty service. By night, its 1,080 lead-acid, 12-volt batteries recharge. By day, they drive its 1,500-horsepower engine as it performs its tasks in the Altoona, Pa., switchyard.

The concept of a battery-driven locomotive grew out of Norfolk Southern’s concerns about operating a large, polluting, and noisy diesel within city limits. Gerhard Thelen, a corporate vice president who heads the company's R&D efforts, originally came to Penn State for help designing the locomotive.

A team led by Chris Rahn, now co-director of the Battery and Energy Storage Technology (BEST) Center, took up the challenge. First, the researchers needed to optimize design and duty cycles of the batteries, so they would deliver full power for as long as possible. Second, they needed to monitor and control all 1,080 batteries so they did not overheat and burn.

The 305,000-lb locomotive began its first trials September 2009. “It stuck to the rails and pulled the cars the way we expected,” says Gibson Barbee, a senior energy engineer who works with Thelen at Norfolk Southern. “Now we’re using what we learned to improve the battery management system and redesigning the structure so we can maintain the batteries more easily.”

Rahn believes No. 999 could lead to a hybrid locomotive in the future. Like hybrid cars, it could use its batteries to accelerate or pull a load up a hill, then recharge as it brakes going down the other side.

Christopher Rahn, Ph.D., is professor of mechanical engineering. Rahn is a co-director of the Battery and Energy Storage Technology (BEST) Center at Penn State.

Last Updated January 25, 2012