Spring 2011 Michigan Tech Magazine

Model Railroads

By Jennifer Donovan

The right way to build a railway

While Pasi Lautala visited cold-climate rail lines for the Alaska-Canada railway study, two other Michigan Tech researchers—Robert Shuchman and Colin Brooks at the Michigan Tech Research Institute (MTRI) in Ann Arbor—were building models. Not model trains—computer models to estimate the railroad’s future revenues.

Their model (called the Mineral Occurrence Revenue Estimation and Visualization, or MOREV, tool) can estimate the profitability of a mining project based on where the railroad might be located, while accounting for carbon output, Brooks said. Specifically, it can show users how different railroad routes might affect a mine’s bottom line and its environmental impact.

That’s important for the railroad as well as for entrepreneurs and investors, since the railroad’s economic health will depend largely on how efficiently it moves the region’s abundant natural resources to market.

“There are many proposed rail projects for Alaska, and this will help decision makers select what should be built and which ones should be prioritized,” Brooks said.

MOREV incorporates the Alaska Resource Data File and exhaustive data on mineral resources in Alaska, Yukon, and British Columbia provided by Paul Metz of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Most of those resources are metallic, such as copper, gold, and molybdenum, a key ingredient in certain steel alloys.

“What we’ve done is combine Paul Metz’s expert knowledge with our GIS and modeling skills,” said Brooks. “We’re looking at different routes in Alaska, figuring out the value of the resources that are along the way and the amount of freight they will generate.”

While the impetus for the model was the Alaska-Canada rail link, MOREV also incorporates potential freight routes out of Alaska. “If someone is looking at shipping resources to customers in China or Japan, or to the lower forty-eight, they can select that,” he said.

The model also provides information on a route’s carbon footprint. “If a rail project is going to be done, it should be done in an environmentally responsible way,” Brooks said. “Our Transportation Carbon Accounting Module can pick the best route in terms of minimizing total carbon dioxide emissions, which is a critical part of assessing the environmental impact of mining activity.”

An upcoming version of the model will help determine a given route’s potential for military and national security use and how it might enhance emergency response in the event of natural disasters.