File this one under T for they who laugh last, laugh best. Toyota has taken plenty of lumps over the years for insisting that hydrogen fuel cell cars are the wave of the zero emission future. That may be so, sometime in the future, but in the meantime Toyota is dipping its toes into other fields, including trucks, buses, ships, and trains. In the latest development, Toyota has joined forces with the 14 million euro FCH2RAIL project to crowd diesel locomotives out of the sprawling EU railway market.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Locomotives To Push Diesel Off The EU Railway Cliff
FCH2RAIL is not fooling around. The aim is to develop a hybrid hydrogen fuel cell power pack that can replace diesel for all different kinds of railway uses, not just one or two.
Multiple unit, mainline and shunting locomotives are among the uses listed by the EU’s CORDIS information service. The project is also targeting retrofits for existing electric trains as well as diesel. That seems a little unnecessary at first glance. However, FCH2RAIL could be aiming to build more flexibility into the EU’s existing rail fleet. Fuel cells would enable non-electric rail lines to use trains that were formerly confined to electrified lines.
As for why a hydrogen fuel cell and not another power transmission line, the emerging consensus is that fuel cells provide a less costly alternative to constructing new overhead lines and transmission systems.
The UK is a case in point. About 10 years ago the UK was formulating plans to electrify its entire railway system. By 2018, though, they ditched the idea in favor of converting the existing diesel fleet to zero emission alternatives.
Battery packs could do the trick, but the heavy-duty mobility industry consensus has been taking a closer look at fuel cells of late. The fuel cell truck and bus fields are getting crowded already. Here in the U.S., fuel cells are also popping up in aircraft and watercraft, as well as locomotives.
Toyota Brings Its Hydrogen Fuel Cell Game To EU Railways
The FCH2RAIL project launched in January with the Spanish railway firm CAF (Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles) at the helm, and an assist from the German Aerospace Center’s Institute of Vehicle Concepts.
Things appear to be moving quickly. Earlier this week, Toyota nailed down a deal to lend its new hybrid hydrogen fuel cell power pack to the effort.
The idea is to allow locomotives to run on overhead wires where available, and switch to on-board hydrogen fuel as needed.
“At the heart of the [FCH2RAIL] project there is a hybrid, bi-modal drive system that combines the electrical power supply from the overhead line with a ‘fuel cell hybrid power pack’ (consisting of hydrogen fuel cells and batteries) that works independent of the overhead line,” explains Toyota.
Toyota also explains how the hybrid system beats both battery-only and diesel locomotives:
“An alternative are purely battery-powered trains, but they have a limited range of operation (30 to 70 kilometres), depending on the route profile and outside temperatures. Current diesel trains have lower performance in terms of top speed and acceleration compared to vehicles powered by electric motors from overhead lines.”
The Hydrogen Fuel Cell & The Battery Find Love
A while back, CleanTechnica was thinking that this whole rivalry between hydrogen fuel cell and battery mobility could resolve with both technologies sharing the same space. If all goes according to plan, the EU railway system could be one such space. Left to be determined is which technology gets to be Oscar and which gets to be Felix, but that could depend on the use case.
Toytota’s new fuel cell is a modular design that provides for both the hydrogen fuel call and the battery to be configured in multiple ways. Depending on the use case and how much electrified rail is available, a train would have more or fewer hydrogen storage tanks. Toyota is taking care of the hydrogen fuel cell end of things, and CAF will handle the battery packs and power converters.
Another question left unanswered is the overall environmental footprint of the FCH2RAIL venture. That will be answered, in part, when the rubber hits the rails. The project will convert one of CAF’s existing CIVIA electric trains to accommodate the hybrid hydrogen fuel cell power pack, and trial runs will take place on tracks in Spain and Portugal.
Helping to spruce things up on the environmental side is the possibility of using waste heat from the fuel cells for heating and air conditioning. For those of you keeping score at home, that angle will come under the purview of several firms including the Faiveley branch of Wabtec, along with Stemmann Technik and the cutting edge HVAC technology specialist, DLR Group.
What About Green Hydrogen?
Of course, the usual caveat applies to any hydrogen fuel cell project. Hydrogen is a zero emission fuel when used in a fuel cell to generate electricity, but currently almost all of the global hydrogen supply comes from natural gas.
A new report from BloombergNEF indicates a pathway for green hydrogen to accelerate, and with that in mind let’s take a quick look at Spain’s Centro National de Hidrogeno hydrogen research institute, which is overseeing the construction of a hydrogen fueling station for the CAF hybrid prototype.
CNH has made a clear commitment to sustainability for the hydrogen fuel cell of the future.
Also, when they say “clean” hydrogen, they don’t meant plain old hydrogen with carbon capture. They mean green hydrogen.
“Clean hydrogen production from renewable sources is the most critical, essential aspect when considering hydrogen as an energy storage system, particularly via water electrolysis, both at low (alkaline, PEM) and high (solid oxide) temperatures,” they emphasize (emphasis theirs).
“There are also other photochemical and biological based processes such as anaerobic waste fermentation or microbial electrolysis that are greatly important for clean hydrogen production,” they add.
More Green Hydrogen For The US
Green hydrogen is also trending here in the US, and President Biden’s new American Jobs Plan provides a hint or two of things to come.
The plan does envision carbon capture playing a role in climate action, but its vision for the new ARPA-C funding office for advanced climate-focused technology is focused like a laser on the clean fuels of the future.
Back in February the White House articulated a mission for ARPA-C that covers “carbon-free hydrogen at a lower cost than hydrogen made from polluting alternatives.” That doesn’t leave much wiggle room for hydrogen production plus carbon capture, according to that new BloombergNEF analysis.
Meanwhile, keep an eye on that shiny new hydrogen hub in Texas for an indicator of the rapid growth of the green hydrogen economy.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: The hydrogen fuel cell Toyota Mirai (Advanced Drive) in foreground, courtesy of Toyota.