BRAZILIAN mining company and rail operator Vale has announced a partnership with Wabtec under which the US supplier will provide three FLXdrive battery locomotives and collaborate on a project to test ammonia fuel as a potential clean alternative to diesel.

Vale will deploy the three battery locomotives on the Carajás railway (EFC). The railway’s trains are some of the world’s longest, often consisting of 330 wagons carrying up to 45,000 tonnes. The battery locomotives will supplement the three to four diesel units on a 140km uphill section in Açailândia, Maranhão, where the train’s fuel consumption is highest, replacing two supplementary diesel locomotives currently deployed to assist trains operating on the section.

Wabtec will manufacture the locomotives at its plant in Contagem, Minas Gerais. Delivery is scheduled for 2026.

Vale’s director of energy, Ms Ludmila Nascimento, says the initial purpose of using battery locomotives is to maximise energy efficiency. However, the future objective is for the diesel locomotives to use ammonia fuel. “This way, we would have a clean operation at EFC,” she says.

Vale and Wabtec will also collaborate on a study of the use of ammonia as a clean alternative fuel, which does not emit CO₂. The study will initially validate performance, emissions reductions and feasibility within a lab environment and will last for two years.

Ammonia is expected to offer an expanded range compared with other carbon-free fuels. It also has a high-octane rating and users will benefit from a large-scale distribution infrastructure.

Vale announced a $US 4-6bn investment in 2020 to reduce its direct and in-direct emissions by 33% by 2030. Vale’s rail network accounts for 10% of its carbon emissions. The company’s Powershift Program is specifically studying the replacement of fossil fuels with clean sources across the company’s operations.

“This agreement is the first of many that we are seeking in order to accelerate the decarbonisation of our railway operation,” Nascimento says.

The FLXDrive locomotive are expected to reduce diesel consumption by up to 25 million litres per year when considering all of the EFC trains that will benefit from the battery locomotive operations. The locomotives are equipped with regenerative braking technology, which recharges the batteries on downhill sections.

“Technological advances in battery power and alternative fuels are accelerating the decarbonisation journey for railroads," says Mr Danilo Miyasato, president and general manager of Wabtec for Latin America. “Vale’s innovative approach to adopting alternative fuels for its locomotives will benefit its customers, shareholders, and communities. The FLXdrive provides Vale with productivity, safety, fuel economy, and emission reductions for its rail network.”

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