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Q&A:

A ton of cargo on a gallon of fuel

I heard an ad recently by CSX that it can move a ton of cargo 400-plus miles on a single gallon of fuel. Is that possible?

CSX maintains the ad is accurate, and several experts outside the company confirm, in general terms, the validity of how the math works.

According to the CSX website (www.csx.com), "ton-mile per gallon is a unit of measurement to describe the efficiency of hauling freight by various modes of transportation." In 2010, using that standard, CSX reported 229,172,569,000 ton-miles and 490,049,749 gallons of fuel used. Divide the fuel into the miles and you get 468 ton-miles per gallon. Here's an example CSX uses:

"... a typical train might haul 3,000 tons of freight 500 miles and consume approximately 3,200 gallons of diesel fuel. The efficiency of this freight haul would be calculated as: (3,000 tons multiplied by 500 miles) divided by (3,200 gallons) equals 469 ton-miles per gallon. This efficiency might be stated as 'a train can move a ton of freight 469 miles on a gallon of fuel.' "

Dr. Nicholas Lownes, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of Connecticut, said in a 2013 interview that he "always understood that this type of claim is in line with reality. (CSX's) idea is that steel wheels, on steel rail are the most efficient way to transport cargo. This method has the least amount of friction possible. Once a train is rolling, it takes the least amount of effort to keep it moving."

But he pointed out that the number is an average, and the "this average value masks a lot of variability across the country." For instance, a train crossing the flatlands of Nebraska and Kansas will use a lot less energy than one running over the Appalachian Mountains.

Lownes concludes: "The questionable validity of the specific statistic ... does not detract from CSX's overarching point: that trains are more efficient ways of transporting freight than traditional truck-and-trailers. But whether CSX and other freight companies truly transport 1 ton of cargo over 400 miles on a single gallon of fuel is a relatively hard fact to verify."

Kevin Costner's oil-skimming machine

I think I read somewhere that Mel Gibson had invented a machine that could skim oil off bodies of water? Did I dream that?

Actor Kevin Costner, not Gibson, owned a company called Ocean Therapy Solutions that made equipment that takes water contaminated by oil, separates it and then expels nearly clean water back into the ocean. Costner came up with the idea after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 and teamed with his brother Dan, a scientist who helped developed the technology.

Costner and his investors spent millions of dollars marketing Ocean Therapy Solutions before BP tested the equipment to help clean polluted water during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. BP bought 32 devices for $52 million, the Associated Press reported.

Q&A: 04/11/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 11, 2014 5:17pm]

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