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Dr. Lyle Benjamin Borst's Atomic Locomotive: A Tale of Innovation

Dr. Lyle Benjamin Borst's Atomic Locomotive: A Tale of Innovation
photo: ATOMIC Hot Links, flickr/Dr. Lyle Benjamin Borst's Atomic Locomotive: A Tale of Innovation
07 / 06 / 2023

Between 1951 and 1957, an ambitious plan was born to build a locomotive that would not need stops to refuel with coal or diesel. So Dr. Lyle Benjamin Borst, a physicist and educator at the University of Utah who had previously worked as a reactor designer for the Atomic Energy Commission, came up with the idea of an atomic-powered locomotive. He also involved students from his Physics 280 Nuclear Technology course in the development of this "unstoppable" nuclear locomotive.

Thanks to the students' help, the concrete designs of the locomotive saw the light of day very soon. Giants such as General Motors and Westinghouse also worked with Borst on the ambitious plan for a 360-ton locomotive. The result was a 54-page plan entitled "Nuclear locomotive: A feasibility study." According to Borst, the locomotive was to measure less than 50 metres in length and weigh over 350 tonnes.

The actual power source that would make the locomotive unstoppable so it could plough America's railroads without stopping was fissile Uranium-235, an isotope of uranium. The tank containing this dangerous "fuel" was to be less than a meter long, with a diameter of about 30 centimetres. The safety feature of the tank would be a 200-tonne containment vessel.

Under Borst's assumptions, the steam created by the reactor was to drive four generators through turbines, which would generate the 7,000 horsepower of electricity needed for the engines that would drive the wheels. The entire back end of the engines would consist of condensers and radiators (equivalent to 1,000 automobile radiators). Thus, the X-12's propulsion system would be so powerful that it would accelerate more than 350 tons to 100 miles per hour in just 3.5 minutes.

Borst's locomotive was to cost $1.2 million, a very large sum for the time. It was double the cost of a diesel locomotive at the time. Borst believed in the project so much that he talked about a reality where the X-12 could compete with diesel locomotives under favourable circumstances. However, the plan never materialized. Despite this, however, Lyle Benjamin Borst has gone down in more than just railroad history as the visionary behind the first professional project to bring an unstoppable nuclear locomotive to the rails.