In the race towards sustainable forms of transportation, hydrogen cars are competing with electric cars to become the most viable alternative to traditional gasoline powered vehicles. It is still too early to tell which of the two alternatives will become the most widespread and, perhaps, it will be a combination of the two – depending on the setting and the specific environment.
Hydrogen as source of power for engines is not, however, restricted to road: By December 2017, Germany will have its first hydrogen powered rail system. Germany has been amongst the first countries to experiment with innovative technologies such as magnetic levitation (Maglev) for rail. Though this technology was never incorporated into commercial use for Germany, it has had more success in East Asia, namely China and Japan.
In an epoch where innovative rail projects often involve record breaking speeds and huge infrastructural investments, Germany will follow a more discreet – albeit innovative – path with its hydrogen powered train.
The train, named Coradia iLint, has been manufactured by French company Alstom in partnership with German and Canadian companies and is based on the diesel train Coradia Lint. In this version, it is powered by fuel cell technology which enables it to reach 140 km/h, on par with ordinary regional trains. Its tank autonomy allows the train to travel between 600 and 800 km, and it can carry about 300 passengers.
The relevant aspects of this technology are that it is carbon neutral with only steam as a byproduct, is quieter than a diesel motor, and stores unused energy in lithium batteries attached to the bottom of the car. The train’s equipment is similar to a diesel train, only with hydrogen as fuel source. There are large fuel cells located on top of the train. These cells combine hydrogen with oxygen, generating the electricity required to move the train along.
Germany has shown interest in these trains, with a purchase request of 60 trains from five federal states. While this is a relatively small change when compared to the 4,000 diesel trains currently in service throughout Germany, Alstom hopes to phase out diesel trains within the next 20 years. The 60 in process are expected to enter service in 2018, and will be particularly useful on tracks not yet converted to electric rails. According to the EU, about 20% of European rail traffic runs on diesel.
It should be considered that there are limits to the sustainability of these hydrogen trains, however. Hydrogen production does not occur naturally, but rather is produced through the electrolysis of water. This process requires more than twice the electricity needed for a train powered by overhead wires or storage batteries.
Furthermore, if the electricity used for the electrolytic process comes from the grid, the carbon neutrality of the grid affects the carbon status of the train. If the electricity powering the grid is produced through carbon sources, then the indirect carbon emissions of the hydrogen train are actually higher than the direct emissions of diesel trains. This is a common concern about alternative fuel sources, including hydrogen and electric cars, as well as vehicles powered through bioethanol.
However, the investments Germany and the rest of the EU are making towards renewable energy mean that in the future renewable energy will be the mainstay of the country’s energy grid. With renewable energy powering the grid, investments in hydrogen technologies will become even more sustainable and environmentally friendly. When our energy sources are entirely carbon free, the hydrogen train will be as well.
Written by Edoardo DeSilva