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Intramotev Is Putting A Charge In The U.S. Rail System

When Americans think of electric trains, it’s usually the miniature version you set up in your basement. But a growing number of real trains are converting to electric power to reduce the rail industry’s carbon footprint. This transition is still early in the United States, where diesel is the dominant fuel. As recently as 2018, American railroads consumed 4.2 billion gallons of diesel – which ranked them second behind only the U.S. military, according to the Brown Political Review. 

A St. Louis startup aims to help change that by developing zero-emission rail solutions that include a fleet of battery-electric autonomous rail cars.

Intramotev Autonomous Rail startup sits at the forefront of innovative technologies to de-carbonize the U.S. rail industry by reducing its reliance on diesel fuel.

Photo Courtesy Intramotev

Intramotev’s flagship product is the TugVolt, a self-propelled electric rail car powered by batteries that “enables freight to move with the flexibility of a truck, without breaking the existing model of rail operations,” according to the American Journal of Transportation. The technology allows rail freight to be hauled without traditional diesel-powered locomotives. Equally important is that it can be implemented without disrupting one of the country’s most important modes of freight transportation.

As Intramotev CEO and co-founder Timothy Luchini put it, the idea is to provide a solution that allows trains to “be competitive with trucks” by offering the same speed at a “fraction of the cost and a fraction of the environmental emissions.”

IntraMotev was founded in 2020, so it’s still in the early stages of commercializing its technology. But the company has drawn the notice of organizations that want to speed the transition to more sustainable rail transportation.

Video Courtesy Intramotev

In May, IntraMotev was awarded a $200,000 grant from Michigan’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification to support the deployment of three of its TugVolt self-propelled railcars. The deployment will take place at a mining site in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in late 2023, according to a May 11 press release.

The grant money will be used to “catalyze the first deployment anywhere in the world of self-propelled, battery-electric railcars for commercial use in a freight rail operation,” the press release said. In addition, the project will let IntraMotev move forward on initial applications of the technology, including “captive routes between mines and processing facilities, as well as intra-plant and ports.” 

One of Intramotev’s goals is to prove the viability of battery-electric railcars so that the U.S. freight industry can reduce its reliance on diesel-powered trains and trucks. U.S. freight trucks produce an estimated 433 million tons of carbon emissions annually, while close to 1 million freight railcars “sit idle every day in switching yards,” Intramotev said.

Photo Courtesy Intramotev

Trucking isn’t the only transportation sector heavily reliant on diesel. “Nearly all” U.S. locomotives are propelled by diesel-electric drives that emit 35 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, CleanTechnica reported, citing a 2021 study that appeared in the Nature Energy journal. 

One way the Intramotev TugVolt addresses the problem is by retrofitting or upfitting existing railcars to become battery-electric. Another of its products, the ReVolt, captures waste energy in traditional trains through “regenerative braking” and features automated safety systems.

These technologies should put Intramotev in a position to help meet the Federal Railroad Administration’s Rail Industry Climate Challenge, a public-private partnership committed to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. 

Photo Courtesy Intramotev

“Achieving this [net zero] target will contribute to FRA’s key goals of building a safe, efficient, and modern transportation system that will expand economic opportunities, create cleaner communities, and help avert the worst effects of climate change,” the FRA said in a statement. “Simultaneously, the Challenge will promote the country’s global leadership in innovation and climate protection.”


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