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Railway Giants: A Locomotive Powered by a Sugarcane Husk—Bizarre or Real?

Railway Giants: A Locomotive Powered by a Sugarcane Husk—Bizarre or Real?
photo: Wikimedia commons / Cinabrium / Public Domain/Livio Dante Porta with the crew of the steamer Santa Cruz
01 / 06 / 2024

Livio Dante Porta was one of the few railway engineers who promoted steam-powered locomotives. Why did he see them as a preferable alternative to internal combustion engines and what, often bizarre, innovations did steam traction bring?

A Native Argentine

At the beginning of our story, we are in the city of Paraná in the northeast of Argentina. He studied at the National University of Litoral in Rosario, graduating in 1946 at the age of 24. To better understand the Argentine situation, let us take a short trip into Argentine history.

Argentina, like many other territories in Latin America, had been colonized by the Spanish since the early 16th century. This state of affairs lasted until the 19th century when Spain began to falter. At sea, it could not keep up with another power, Great Britain. The Spanish situation was not helped by the Napoleonic Wars, during which Spain was ruled by a puppet government headed by Napoleon's brother Joseph Bonaparte. He, however, was opposed by a strong resistance, whose opposition constantly persecuted him. After Napoleon's fall, the Bourbons regained power in Spain. This period was crucial for Spain's position in Latin America.

In 1810, the so-called 'May Revolution' took place in Argentina, giving real shape to the existence of an independent state. Argentina would have to walk a long and bloody road to independence, marked not only by war with Spain and other Latin American countries (the collapse of the empire usually goes hand in hand with territorial disputes between the new countries) but also by civil wars against the colonialists' domestic supporters. The new state was proclaimed in 1816, but this too was accompanied by internal and external armed conflicts. Relative peace would not come to the new state until 1861, the year in which the roots of the modern Argentine state took root. It was during this period of relative stability and prosperity that the country's first railway kilometers were built. By 1920, the length of the country's railway network had reached 47,000 km. This is quite a high figure and the optimal time to return to our great man.

Evolution Instead of Revolution

After finishing his studies, Livio began to work on steam locomotives. This was quite a logical choice for a young engineer because, in 1946, classic steam locomotives were in the final stages of their evolution, even though there was a great unknown about their future. Both internal combustion and electric traction were proving to be more than strong competitors. At the same time, it was during this period that the queens of steam traction were created, which greatly inspired Livio. Consider the extremely powerful American locomotive Niagara 4-8-4 or the most powerful European locomotive 242 A1, the crowning achievement of Livio's French model André Chapelon and one of the greatest competitors of the emerging electric traction.

Wikimedia commons / Public Domain

Livio carried out his first projects in Argentina. He attempted to build on Chapelon's work and prove that the potential of steam-powered locomotives was much further than most engineers of the time thought. In addition to his persistence, steam traction was helped by his method of designing locomotives, which his students would call the "holistic" method of design. According to Livio, when designing steam locomotives, it was essential to take into account not only the actual streamlining of the locomotive's internal workings but also environmental, social, and economic concerns. At the same time, the focus was on making existing locomotives more efficient rather than designing entirely new ones.

An example of this is his first project, where he converted a Pacific locomotive into an extremely efficient 4-8-0 locomotive called 'Argentina'. In 1957, Livio moved to Patagonia, where he accepted a position as director of the Rio Tubio coal railway. For this railway, among other things, he upgraded the American Mitsubishi 2-10-2 locomotives to become one of the most powerful types of steam locomotives ever to run anywhere in the world. These locomotives would remain in service until 1997. Livio himself moved to Buenos Aires in 1970 to head the thermodynamics department at the National Institute of Technology.

Wikimedia commons / Public Domain

A Valued expert

His reputation gradually spread around the world. It comes as no great surprise when, in 1980, he was invited to the USA by American Coal Enterprises to work on the development of a new generation of heavy-duty steam locomotives. However, the project was eventually abandoned. In 1999, he pulled off a masterstroke. He rebuilt the Cuban 2-8-0 locomotive to run on a variety of cheap fuels, including leftover crushed sugarcane husks. This collaboration appealed to him, and Livio would work with

Cuban engineers until his death to develop the younger sisters of this locomotive, which he hoped would result in one of the cheapest railroad locomotives to operate and maintain.

In the last years of Livio's life, his advice was welcomed in many places in the world. His advice was commissioned by the Swiss company Sulzer and the famous British steam engineer David Wardale, among others.

Livio breathed his last in June 2003. He leaves behind his wife Ana Maria, with whom he had 4 children. However, only 2 of them survived Livio, as their only daughter was kidnapped and never found and 1 of their 3 sons died of cancer at a young age. David Wardale himself sums up Livio's life as follows, "He continued to experiment wherever there was even half a chance of the steam starting again."