HUNTSVILLE – History and energy innovation are about to collide in Huntsville’s heritage steam train.
Rob Alexander, chief operating officer for a technology development company called SheerTech, said his company is partnering with the Town of Huntsville on an alternate energy pilot project that could see stored green energy power the historic Portage Flyer stream train.
“It should be a pretty good draw to have the world’s first, totally green, zero carbon footprint train in our town,” said Alexander, former owner of Algonquin Automotive and Hidden Hitch. “And it really would be green. If we were using green energy, our only emissions would be water from the steam. It would be a very cool thing to be able to claim.”
The project would see a green energy-charged mobile thermal battery installed on the train. The battery, filled with molten thermal salts, would be charged at one end by a green energy source, such as solar power, and water would be injected at the opposite end to create steam.
“It’s the same kind of steam that can run a steam train,” said Alexander. “Steam is an alternative conduit for energy versus electricity.”
The battery, invented by scientist and SheerTech president Geoff Sheerin, would be the first of its kind.
Alexander said the project is significant for two main reasons.
The first is its potential for grid-level energy storage. He said there is an effort around the world, including in Ontario, to find a way to store energy created by existing power grids.
Power plants, he said, are typically over built to meet peak energy needs on-demand because they have no storage capability.
“We’ve had to size our capacity to roughly double what is needed because of that peak demand and because we had no way to actually store energy,” he said.
The second is its potential to make green energy more reliable.
“Many of the green sources are intermittent sources of energy,” he said, noting solar panels only work if the sun is shining. “You’ve got all these green sources, but you can’t actually predict when they’re going to produce.”
SheerTech’s battery could not only potentially store energy to provide a consistent stream of power when needed, but also provide a means of transporting energy from one location to another.
Alexander said a major application for the battery could be to capture wind energy in the remote Hudson Bay area and distribute it in northern developments where diesel power is now used.
He said Huntsville would be a prime location for the development of the technology, not only because SheerTech is headquartered here, but also because the town and its commercial rail line are a gateway to the north. There is also a pool of skilled and semi-skilled labour in the region with the capacity to develop the technology, not to mention the project fits with the town’s sustainability strategy.
Plus, the Portage Flyer provided the perfect opportunity to test the technology.
Alexander said Huntsville’s Portage Flyer is the perfect train on which to test the device because it is small and has its own, closed rail line.
The mobile thermal battery and its components will sit in a railcar-type box, called a tender, behind the train’s engine. The energy it collects from the green energy source is expected to run the train for days before it needs to be recharged.
The company, which includes Alexander, Sheerin and designer Chris Corke, has received tentative approval from the town to conduct a non-invasive test of the technology on the heritage train. The technology will not harm the train and it can be easily removed, said Alexander.
The project has already succeeded on a smaller scale.
The company expects to hammer out the details of the full-scale project this year with a working model on the train by next summer.
But, said Alexander, research and development is fraught with risk. The project hinges not only on the success of the battery, but also on its integration as a power source for the train.
“But either way we will know a lot more and have a much better idea of whether or not this concept will work.”
He said there could be a considerable number of applications for the technology. For example, the mobile thermal batteries could be charged and transported to regions experiencing severe power loss because of hurricanes or other natural disasters, as happened in New York, U.S., after Hurricane Sandy.
If the development goes as planned, it could also mean manufacturing jobs for Huntsville. However, Alexander said nothing has been confirmed.
“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We just have to demonstrate it works at this size,” he said. “We’re a ways away from significant job creation.”
The development of the technology would happen here and initial manufacturing would likely be here as well.
“If this thing works out and is as big as we think it could be, there will be plants all over the world, but there’s nothing wrong with doing it here,” he said.