The idea of a hydrogen fuel cell train seems simple enough. Zero emission fuel cells can be more suitable than battery packs for locomotives and other heavy duty applications. Fuel cells can also replace diesel locomotives while avoiding the cost of electrifying an entire railway with overhead wires and other infrastructure. The devil is in the details, but the firms Cummins and Alstom were in the vanguard of the fuel cell train movement and now all that hard work is about to pay off.
More Hydrogen Fuel Cell Trains
Hydrogen is a ubiquitous element, but it has to be extracted from something. Right now the global supply of hydrogen comes from natural gas, with coal and refinery byproducts lending an assist.
For a hydrogen fuel cell train to make sense from a decarbonization perspective, it needs to shake free of the fossil energy supply chain. That is beginning to happen as the new green H2 market grows (for those of you new to the topic, “green” refers mainly to hydrogen gas pushed from water with an assist from renewable energy).
While that is under way, interest in hydrogen fuel cell trains has already picked up. The UK, for example, has been poking around the hydrogen fuel cell area as a replacement for diesel trains, after ditching an earlier railway electrification plan as too expensive.
In 2019 California set the wheels in motion for a hydrogen fuel cell train to ply its new ARROW railway route, which connects Redlands to the San Bernardino Transit Center.
Last year an EU project called FCH2RAIL joined forces with Toyota for a hybrid approach to fuel cell trains. Scotland is also aiming to decarbonize its railways with the help of hydrogen fuel cell trains, in collaboration with Alstom.
Germany Wins 100% Hydrogen Fuel Cell Train Race
Last November Alstom also agreed to supply ten 3-car editions of its Coradia iLint hydrogen fuel cell trains to Scotland. Meanwhile, Alstom has also been putting the finishing touches on a new railway fleet of 14 hydrogen fuel cell trains on a route in Lower Saxony, Germany, under the umbrella of the railway firm Landesnahverkehrsgesellschaft Niedersachsen (LNVG).
According to Alstom, the newly decarbonized rail line will be the first passenger route in the world to run exclusively on hydrogen fuel cell technology, once all 14 trains are delivered.
The new trains will replace 15 diesel trains that ply the route, which runs between Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde and Buxtehude.
The new hydrogen fuel cell trains need only one fill-up per day, and the filling up will be done by Linde, a leading producer of gases that is pivoting into the green H2 field. A new green H2 collaboration between Denmark and Germany should help accelerate Linde’s decarbonization journey.
Don’t Forget About Cummins
Speaking of legacy companies transitioning to new clean tech, the US-based firm Cummins also has a leading hand in Germany’s new 100% hydrogen fuel cell railway. Cummins supplied the fuel cell systems for the Coradia iLint trains.
“The systems allow the train to emit only steam and condensed water while in service and operate with low noise levels that improve both operator and passenger comfort,” Cummins points out.
The LNVG contract is not just a one-off for Cummins. The company has been collaborating with Alstom on the Coradia iLint all along, including test runs in Austria, the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden as well in Germany.
Cummins is already set to deliver 54 additional fuel cell systems to Alstom, which will be shared out among 27 new Coradia iLint trains for Frankfurt in Germany. Earlier this year Cummins also opened a new factory in Germany, anticipating even more EU fuel cell train activity in the coming years.
Cummins is also front and center in the fields of green H2 tech. The company lays claim to the world’s largest operating PEM electrolyzer, and a power-to gas wind energy storage system in Germany.
More Zero Emission Trains On The Way
The US has quite a bit of catching up to do in the hydrogen fuel cell train area. Aside from the passenger train destined for California, the only other example we could find is Sierra Northern Railroad, which is working off a grant to build a fuel cell electric locomotive for freight applications in switching yards.
Meanwhile, the train electrification movement is beginning to hit the US in other forms. The US firm Wabtec for example, introduced its first battery-powered locomotive last year. The new locomotive makes a short hop of about 140 miles between Pennsylvania and Ohio. Wabtec also has its eye on the railway market overseas for its electric locomotive
Another legacy firm, Progress Rail (a Caterpillar subsidiary) is focusing on the mining industry for railway electrification, in addition to supplying battery-powered locomotives for freight operations. The mining industry is also picking up on the idea of gravity-powered trains that store energy for the uphill climb with regenerative braking.
Another interesting example is the startup Parallel Systems, which has come up with a high tech “rail vehicle” electrification model that eschews conventional battery-powered locomotives in favor of single, autonomous rail cars.
Applying solar panels to rail cars is another aspect of the railway electrification movement. Germany is also exploring the potential for solar-to-rail on its electrified rail lines.
More Green Hydrogen For Fuel Cell Trains
Meanwhile, fans of hydrogen fuel cell trains have plenty to cheer about in the area of green hydrogen. In addition to new activity in the Baltic Sea, the Suez Canal Economic Zone has suddenly emerged as a green H2 hotspot.
In the latest development, last week SCEZ signed seven MOUs involving green H2 and green fuels, including an $11 billion facility under the umbrella of the energy firm Globaleq.
Another MOU in the series went to India’s Acme Group, which will put up $13 billion.
As for hydrogen fuel cell transportation, the emerging consensus was that fuel cells were on track to dominate heavy duty scenarios, while battery power would maintain its grip on the passenger car market.
That may be so, but some automakers are hedging their bets. BMW, for example, has been testing a new FCEV crossover SUV this year and is on track for a production run.
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