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Illustration of a rail car design that could be safer.

Safe Passage

A student’s innovative rail car design would greatly reduce chances of an explosion

A third-year electrical engineering student has designed a safer kind of rail car that, if implemented, could prevent deadly train explosions such as the one that rocked Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013.

The innovative concept earned Iman Chalabi first place in the Minerva Canada James Ham Safe Design Awards earlier this year, and a $3,500 prize. Chalabi designed his “smart tank” rail car to safely transport any type of flammable fuel, including crude oil. When sensors detect a collision or uncontrolled rolling, small tanks inside the fuel car release water and surfactants that combine with the fuel to create a liquid that is significantly less flammable and less likely to explode. If the tank car is punctured in the collision, the fuel that leaks out will also be less likely to ignite.

What’s more, Chalabi added a small tank of an organic compound that increases the viscosity of crude oil, turning it into a gel that is slower to leak into the surrounding environment and easier for responders to contain. Because flammable liquids can produce flammable gases, he also included a gas pressure sensor and a valve to relieve pressure inside the tank.

Prof. Nazir Kherani, of electrical and computer engineering and materials science and engineering, helped Chalabi choose the best materials for his plan – a specialized mixture of sorbitant esters and water for the surfactant, and norbornene to increase viscosity.

All of Chalabi’s components are possible to retrofit inside the tank car models currently used for shipping flammable liquids by rail. His project also included a cost analysis demonstrating its economic viability. Chalabi, who is now working in the U.S., says he is interested in presenting his award-winning design to railway companies.

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