2GTN1YR Pacific Railroad Along The Coast Of California With Blooming Wildflowers In Springtime

It’s A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Train Party, And California Is Invited

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Many slings and arrows have been lobbed at the idea of outfitting electric vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells instead of battery packs, but the vision of zero emission power on-the-go refuses to die. In the latest development, California is adding a fleet of hydrogen fuel cell trains to its stable of fossil fuel alternatives.

California Gets More $$ For (Clean) Hydrogen

For those of you new to the topic, fuel cell vehicles are electric vehicles, but they don’t use battery packs as their main power source. Instead, fuel cells generate electricity through a reaction between hydrogen and ambient air, assisted by a catalyst. That sounds simple enough, but the aim of bringing down cost, size, and weight can complicate matters (see more CleanTechnica coverage here).

Among other advantages, advocates note that fuel cells can be recharged with hydrogen in about the same time it takes to fill a gasmobile. Detractors note that hydrogen filling stations are all but non-existent in most US states.

California is the exception that proves the filling station rule, as it carries on a years-long initiative to pepper the state with hydrogen fuel stations. California can also set the rules, too. The state has a long history of running ahead of the curve to abate tailpipe emissions, leveraging its huge transportation market to influence national policy.

As for whether or not that national influence pans out for fuel cell vehicles, that remains to be seen. However, fuel cell fans in California got a huge thumbs up from the Biden administration last week, in the form of a $1.2 billion funding slice out of the new $7 billion Clean Hydrogen Hubs pie. The program deploys money from the 2021 Bipiartisan Infrastructure Law to push down the cost of hydrogen and diversify the supply chain.

About 95% of hydrogen produced in the US currently comes from natural gas, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law does stipulate a carve-out for natural gas. Not in California, though. The state’s share of BIL funding goes exclusively to produce hydrogen from renewable resources, namely, water and biomass.

More Fuel Cell Trains For California

To the extent that an ample supply of non-fossil hydrogen helps make the case for fuel cell mobility, the timing is perfect for fuel cell trains to expand their footprint in California.

Railway stakeholders have been eyeing fuel cells as a means of electrifying routes currently plied by fossil-dependent trains, without having to invest in new transmission lines, overhead wires, substations and other new electrical infrastructure. Hydrogen can be shipped to filling stations by pipeline or truck, ideally using existing roads and rights-of-way.

California is already home to a fuel cell train demonstration focusing on switcher locomotives, which aims to cut diesel emissions at rail yards. Switcher locomotives put in a lot of work over the course of a day, and shifting the fleet from diesel to hydrogen-electric is expected to make a significant impact on local air quality.

Another flurry of activity is coming in the area of inter-city transportation. On October 12 the Swiss company Stadler announced its US branch has signed an agreement with California to provide the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) and Caltrans with four hydrogen trainsets.

That may sound like small potatoes, but if all goes according to plan the agreement comes with an option to purchase 25 more fuel cell trains. That represents a new vote of confidence from the San Bernardino Transportation Authority, which ordered its first hydrogen train from Stadler back in 2019 with an eye on operation in 2024.

Stadler, for one, is confident that the groundwork has been laid for success. The company notes that its fuel cell trains have been put through their paces in both Switzerland and the US, closely watched by CalSTA and Caltrans.

As explained by the California Department of Transportation, the $80 million contract with Stadler builds on a partnership between the company and the San Bernardino County Transportation Authority. DOT is also proud to point out that the contract is funded through “Governor Gavin Newsom’s historic $10 billion, multiyear zero-emission vehicle package, which included $407 million for the California State Transportation Agency (CalSTA) to demonstrate and purchase or lease state-of-the-art clean bus and rail equipment and infrastructure.”

Credit also goes to Ballard Power Systems, which is contributing its fuel cell expertise to the project under a deal signed last year.

Sparks Fly When Fuel Cell Train Meets Electricity

The agreement covers Stadler’s new “FLIRT H2” fuel cell train technology, which is intended to be a flexible solution that can be applied to railways that are already electrified with overhead wires, as well as those without. The new trains build on the company’s success with its electric FLIRT [Fast Light Intercity and Regional Train] trainsets.

The vast majority of locomotives in the US actually run on electric drive already, but they use diesel fuel to run an onboard generator. Stadler introduced FLIRT H2 last year to replace the diesel elements with hydrogen fuel cells and a battery, which enables the train to capture waste energy from braking.

“The fuel cells convert hydrogen into electricity. This electricity is sent to a traction battery. The battery then supplies the drive of the vehicle with the power required at any given time,” explains Stadler. “This configuration also allows for recuperation of brake energy back to the battery. Therefore, the battery stores both braking power and power from the hydrogen cells.”

Instead of packing everything into a standalone locomotive, FLIRT H2 distributes the engineering among trainsets consisting of two to four cars, depending on the needs of the rail operator.

“Just like the traditional FLIRT [ train, the series-produced FLIRT H₂ model can be flexibly and individually adapted to the needs of each client and route network,” Stadler adds. “The FLIRT H₂ vehicle is optionally available with pantographs and a mains transformer so that it can also be operated under an overhead contact line.”

More Fuel Cell Trains For The USA

Elsewhere in the US, the Pennsylvania-based firm Wabtec has launched a battery-electric locomotive, aiming at the overseas market for zero emission trains as well as here in the US. The company is also taking a close look at fuel cell technology. In 2021 the company announced a partnership with GM to adapt the auto maker’s Ultium EV battery technology for a fuel cell locomotive.

Wabtec is also among those exploring the pluses and minuses of replacing diesel with hydrogen combustion engines, in a research project that partners the company with Argonne National Laboratory.

Another legacy US firm, Caterpillar, has also been stirring the fuel cell train pot. In 2021 Caterpillar’s Progress Rail branch hooked up with the railway company BNSF and Chevron’s US subsidiary to launch a fuel cell train demonstration project.

BNSF’s efforts in the fuel cell train area actually go back to 2009, when the company took a 1957 Canadian Pacific GP9 8637 diesel locomotive to its shop in Kansas for a fuel cell makeover. The locomotive had already been converted to battery power in 2006. The fuel cell project partnered BNSF with Vehicle Projects Inc., Ballard Fuel Systems, and the US Department of Defense.

The new fuel cell train saw service as a switcher locomotive and demonstration model at BNSF’s Hobart Yard in California until 2014. Apparently the old GP9 8637 has earned its place in history. Last summer BNSF donated the locomotive to the Oklahoma Railway Museum.

Meanwhile, Over In Congress

Of course, no story about fuel cell trains would be complete without a mention of the US House of Representatives, where the Republican majority has empowered the lunatics run the asylum.

Republican members of Congress fired Representative Kevin McCarthy from the all-important post of Speaker on October 4, and the House cannot conduct normal business until they replace him.

That’s all well and good for any member of Congress who aims to make hash out of the most powerful democracy in the modern world (spoiler alert: all of these Republicans), but the rest of us would like to know that our tax dollars are not being frittered away by a suited-up colony of lemmings in search of a cliff.

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Image: Hydrogen fuel cell trains are coming to California, via California DOT courtesy of Stadler.

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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.

Tina Casey has 3141 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey