Scotland Banks On Hydrogen Fuel Cell Trains For Zero Emission Railway By 2035

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Scotland set a 2035 decarbonization goal for its passenger rail system last summer, and they sure have their work cut out for them. Squeezing diesel locomotives out of the picture is not as easy as it may seem. Electrification has been the weapon of choice, and now they’re moving in for the kill with new hydrogen fuel cell trains. Wait, what happened to electrification?

hydrogen fuel cell train Scotland
Scotland is on track to nail down its first hydrogen fuel cell passenger train in time for COP 26 in Glasgow (photo courtesy of Arcola).

Wait, What Happened to Electrification?

Funny you should ask. Nothing happened to electrification. It just depends, that’s all.

Installing new electric infrastructure on previously un-electrified routes can run into cost and engineering obstacles, which cuts off that option for some railways. Trains can also be electrified with on-board batteries, like any other electric vehicle. However, battery packs for locomotives and other heavy-duty uses can take forever to charge, leading to conflicts with scheduling and fleet availability in some cases.

So far, battery-electric locomotives have been confined mainly to yard work. BNSF has just begun trialing a hybrid battery combo for longer hauls in the US, but it leans heavily on diesel.

Battery-swapping is one solution to the charging issue. It is emerging in the electric car field, but it entails some logistics challenges of its own when locomotive-sized battery packs are involved.

That finally brings us to hydrogen, and the UK electrification experience is instructive in that regard. Back in 2012 the UK announced ambitious plans to electrify its entire fleet of diesel locomotives, but things started to fall apart after just a few months when ambition came up against the state of technology, among other issues.

By 2018 the idea of converting electric trains to hydrogen fuel cells became part of the plan. That project is taking shape under the “Breeze” fuel cell train program with the France-based firm Alstom.

Fuel cells produce electricity by exposing hydrogen and ambient oxygen to a catalyst, so fuel cell locomotives are electrification, but different. For that matter, locomotive fuel cell systems can deploy batteries as well as fuel cell stacks (more on that in a second), so you get the best of both worlds.

Scotland Hearts Hydrogen Fuel Cells

The hydrogen fuel cell locomotive trend seems to be catching on. Alstom also recently announced plans for introducing fuel cell trains to Austria and Italy, and now here comes Scotland with a major new fuel cell train initiative spearheaded by the new-ish firm Arcola Energy.

They are not fooling around. The new initiative hooks Arcola up with the Scottish Enterprise economic development organization, the government transportation agency Transport Scotland, and the Hydrogen Accelerator at the University of St. Andrew.

If there are any doubts about Scotland’s commitment to a hydrogen economy, the Hydrogen Accelerator is here to dispel them.

The Hydrogen Accelerator describes its mission as central to “defining and delivering decarbonisation in Scotland.” That includes taking a lead role in assessing technology, as well as optimizing and standardizing technology and steering outreach and communications.

The Accelerator also helps private firms, academic R&D resources, and other local resources hook up together. The new sustainability incubator at the Michelin Scotland Innovation Parc in Dundee is one example. It launched just a few months ago and the first cohort of eight firms is already beginning to settle in. A second cohort is planned for 2021, so stay tuned for more on that.

The Decarbonization Secret Behind The New Diesel-to-Hydrogen Push

Along with government and academic partners, the Arcola team includes the consulting firm Arup and compliance specialists Abbott Risk Consulting, and third party verification through AEGIS Certification Services.

The plan is to leverage Arcola’s newly launched “A-Drive” technology to develop a new powertrain that fits rail safety and compliance standards.

Batteries are included, by the way. As described by our friends over at Bulk Transporter, the A-Drive is designed with batteries that can be tailored to particular applications, in addition to the electric motor, and the fuel cell and hydrogen storage systems.

So, why batteries on a hydrogen-electric train? That’s an easy one. The A-Drive batteries enable regenerative braking, which involves capturing and storing kinetic energy for re-use.

The aim is to deliver a fully certified hydrogen train in just 10 months, which is right around the corner, but they do have a running start. The plan is for Arcola to convert one of ScotRail’s Class 314 car passenger trains into a “deployment-ready” R&D platform for the consortium partners, with the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway providing site support.

If all goes according to that plan, the next plan is to use lessons learned to develop a system-wide plan for introducing hydrogen trains to Scotland’s railways.

And, that’s where things get interesting. Decarbonization is not simply a matter of dumping out the old fuel and introducing the new. Lifecycle carbon impacts also come into play. From the railway perspective, the dump-and-go approach misses a golden opportunity to leverage additional carbon savings by repurposing old rolling stock. That’s exactly what Scotland has in mind.

“This project has the potential to be a game changer for the future of Scotland’s rail rolling stock,” explains Transport Secretary Michael Matheson. “Our Rail decarbonisation Action Plan sets out to make our passenger railways emissions free by 2035, but to maximise our climate change ambitions, there is also a requirement to look at what we do with retired stock. If we can bring those back into use in a carbon neutral way, there are huge climate gains to be made.”

Ah! Interesting! Battery fans may be wondering why retrofitting diesel locomotives with battery packs won’t do the same trick. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

More & Better Hydrogen On The Way

Meanwhile, Arcola and its partners will be working ’round the clock to get the new train up and running in time to strut its stuff during the next UN climate change conference, COP26, in November, which will be hosted in Scotland by Glasgow City.

What’s up with that, one might ask. The primary source of the global hydrogen supply is natural gas, which means that switching from a diesel engine to a fuel cell isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, decarbonization-wise.

Fortunately, as charted early and often on the pages of CleanTechnica, hydrogen from renewable resources is coming on the scene. Green H2 sources include biogas, biomass, wastewater, seawater and just about any old water. Industrial waste gas and solid waste are also in the mix (please note that water is part of the electrolysis pathway described below).

The water angle is currently getting the most traction on the commercial market. It involves electrolysis systems, which deploy electricity to split hydrogen gas away from water. That would not have made any sense back in the olden days when most of the world’s electricity came from fossil energy sources. It still does, but renewable energy is beginning to take over and much of the latest hydrogen activity is focused on renewable sources.

That circles right back around to Scotland, where an abundance of offshore wind power and other renewables puts the country on track to produce a superabundance of clean kilowatts. Green H2 already plays a strong role in the latest iteration of Scotland’s overall decarbonization plan, and it has nowhere to go but up.

In one especially interesting development, Scotland is hooking up a tidal energy system with a flow battery and a green H2 electrolysis system, so stay tuned for more on that.

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Photo (screenshot, cropped): Hydrogen train for Scotland rail system courtesy of Arcola.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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