Next stop, hydrogen? The future of rail fuels
With 2021 designated the European Year of Rail, all eyes are on the industry for innovation, sustainability initiatives and new technologies.
Rail has been recognized as one of the cleanest and most environmentally friendly modes of transportation. Data from the Office of Rail and Road, published in its report Rail emissions 2019-2020 report, shows that, for passenger trains, diesel consumption increased by 1.5% compared to 2018-2019, but the resulting CO2e emissions for passenger trains fell to 35.1g CO2e per passenger -km. This is the lowest level recorded since the start of the comparative data series in 2011-2012.
Although rail has a less harmful impact on the environment than many other modes of transport, the industry is constantly looking for alternative fuels that could help reduce its environmental impact. Some companies have switched to battery-powered engines as a cleaner alternative, while others are turning to hydrogen to power their trains.
Fuel hydrogen can be produced by several methods. the most commonly used methods today are the reforming of natural gas (a thermal process) and the electrolysis of water, which allows electricity to flow through the water to separate the hydrogen and oxygen atoms. The electricity used can be produced by wind, solar and hydraulic sources.
The world’s first hydrogen train
The world’s first passenger train powered by a hydrogen fuel cell was produced by Alstom. Dubbed ‘Coradia iLint’, this zero-emission train also emits low noise levels as the exhaust fumes are just steam and condensed water.
The train was first presented in 2016 at InnoTrans in Berlin and entered commercial service in Germany in 2018. After successful operations in Germany, Alstom has received several orders for its hydrogen locomotives from Italy , from France and Austria.
In a press release, Jörg Nikutta, Managing Director of Alstom Transport Deutschland for Germany and Austria, said: passenger service.
The electricity necessary for the operation of the on-board systems is supplied via a fuel cell, which generates energy by combining the hydrogen stored on the roof of the train with the oxygen in the air.
The Coradia iLint can carry up to 150 seated and 150 standing passengers and can achieve a range of up to 1,000 km at a top speed of 140 km / h.
Hydrogen: a first in the UK
The UK’s first hydrogen train, HydroFLEX, was developed by the University of Birmingham’s Rail Research and Education Center and rolling stock solutions provider Porterbrook and launched in 2019.
The HydroFLEX train was developed from a Class 319 train – a class first built in 1987. Porterbrook worked with Northern to outfit the train with hydrogen tanks, a fuel cell and fuel cell. a battery to allow the train to operate with zero carbon emissions.
The fuel cell unit, powered by hydrogen, converts the mixture of hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity up to 100 kW, with water being the only by-product. HydroFLEX is also equipped with two lithium-ion battery packs that store electrical energy, making it the world’s first dual-mode hydrogen electric train.
HydroFLEX successfully completed its first mainline test at the end of last year. During the first set of tests, the train – dubbed HydroFLEX one – made a 25 mile round trip through Warwickshire and Worcestershire.
“When we originally designed HydroFLEX, it was designed with the idea that they would go on the main line,” explained Dr Stuart Hillmansen of the Birmingham Center for Railway Research and Education.
“To install it on the main line, you have to prove that it meets all the standards and regulations required to operate vehicles on the main line. We went through this process with Porterbrook, and we received funding from them as well as from Innovate UK. “
“It was a success; the train performed very well during all three tests and performed pretty much as expected. We learned a lot from the engineering and all the data we gathered was also of great use. for future design. “
The train made the 25 mile trip three times. “It was really a demonstrator to show that the train could be used on the main line and that it was compatible with the existing infrastructure. said Hillmansen. “It was a success; the train performed very well during all three tests and performed pretty much as expected. We learned a lot from the engineering and all the data we gathered was also of great use. for future design. “
Following the successful testing of HydroFLEX one, the development of HydroFLEX two was carried out with the help of additional funding from Innovate UK. The funding enabled the team to develop a design that allows the fuel cell and battery system to be better integrated into the overall train design.
HydroFLEX one had all the equipment installed inside one of the central vehicles, limiting its ability to carry passengers. It also limited the amount of power it could produce, with the train reaching a top speed of 50 mph.
“We need a lot more power installed in HydroFLEX 2,” Hillmansen said. “The current project is to design a power system with a fuel cell power system, case storage system, control system and battery system integrated into the system. of the train to provide an increased power level, and therefore the performance of the train. . “
There are many potential benefits to using hydrogen as an alternative rail fuel, the most notable being that it is a clean energy source that supports zero carbon strategies. Hydrogen fuel cell technology also provides more powerful and efficient energy production compared to fossil fuels.
The team behind HydroFLEX chose hydrogen because it is a fully mobile fuel that can be carried on the train, as well as a renewable energy source.
“Hydrogen allows us to achieve autonomy and performance, and most importantly, you can create hydrogen by electrolysis, it’s really a key step,” explained Hillmansen. “The national electricity grid sector wants to decarbonise by 2050, it is already achieving massive targets. What we can do is take electricity from the grid, which decarbonates, and run it through an electrolyser to produce hydrogen which can then be used to power trains.
Along with hydrogen, many rail companies have also explored the use of battery power to power trains via renewable electricity. However, there are some setbacks to this technology, as batteries are currently not able to store as much energy as needed to power a train.
Another setback is in terms of location, according to Hillmansen. A common criticism is, ‘Why don’t you just use the electricity directly and then electrify the rail lines? “, He said. “Yes, that makes sense because you are not wasting electricity in the electrolysis process. However, on many parts of our railroad there is not the right frequency of service to justify electrification.
“In some rural areas you can have four trains a day, or one train every two hours. You will never be able to cover the cost of electrifying this part of the network. So this is where we see hydrogen as having huge potential to solve this decarbonization problem for these roads. ”
As more companies follow suit with the development of hydrogen trains, the industry could be on the right track for an increasingly cleaner future.