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Tina Casey headshot

Hydrogen Economy Gets Real: Renewable Power for Rail Transportation

By Tina Casey

Just a few years ago the sustainable hydrogen economy seemed a long way off, but things are moving along at a rapid clip. In the latest development, French mobility company Alstom says it is ready to market zero-emissions, hydrogen-powered passenger trains in Europe. The new trains could hit the rails by the end of next year.

That may not be such great news for the environment if Alstom plans to get all that hydrogen from natural gas, which is the conventional way to do it. However, we're guessing the company is already looking to provide its clients with hydrogen from renewable sources.

The trouble with hydrogen

Hydrogen is a zero-emission fuel, but the natural gas angle pretty much kills the tailpipe advantages. That's especially true in the U.S., where the impacts of natural gas fracking include air pollution and impacts on water resources.

Earthquakes are another side effect of fracking, say some scientists. Though the drilling operation itself has been linked to seismic activity only in rare cases, the disposal of wastewater from oil and gas drilling, including fracking, has made formerly quiet areas into earthquake hotspots.

Methane leaks along the natural gas supply chain, from wellhead to storage and pipelines, is another critical issue in terms of both global warming and local hazards.

In addition to environmental impacts, researchers are also beginning to amass evidence of public health impacts in areas that have experienced the recent fracking boom. (Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, a formerly "unconventional" oil and gas drilling method with relatively limited application until the Bush administration provided it with an exemption from federal water protection rules.)

All in all, depending on natural gas for the hydrogen supply chain of the future is not a good idea.

Sustainable hydrogen for transportation

Alstom seems to have the jump on that problem. Europe is a promising staging area to launch hydrogen-powered trains because the EU has already begun to invest in sustainable hydrogen production.

The emphasis is on using renewable energy, such as wind energy or tidal energy, to power an electrocatalytic operation that strips hydrogen from water.

In effect, renewable hydrogen production is a form of energy storage. Instead of being used in combustion engines, hydrogen can be stored and used in mobile fuel cells for electric vehicles and other transportation systems, as well as stationary fuel cells that generate electricity for buildings.

Moreover, last year Alstom hooked up with the company Hydrogenics to do this:

"Hydrogenics ... a leading developer and manufacturer of hydrogen generation and hydrogen-based power modules, today announced that it has signed a 10 year exclusive agreement to supply Alstom Transport with hydrogen fuel cell systems for Regional Commuter Trains in Europe," the company said in a press release.

That's significant because Hydrogenics specializes in wind-to-hydrogen production.

Earlier this summer, Hydrogenics and other partners launched the first megawatt-scale energy storage project in Asia, at the Lam Takhong Wind Turbine Generation Project in Thailand. An electrolyzer powered by wind energy will produce hydrogen from water during off-peak hours. The stored hydrogen will then be used to provide fuel for a fuel cell system.

The fuel cell system will be kicked into gear as needed to provide electricity for the Learning Center, an energy-neutral project of the Electricity Generation Authority of Thailand.

So, it seems a pretty safe bet that Alstom's pitch for hydrogen-powered transportation also includes a renewable energy angle.

Hydrogen-powered trains

That finally brings us to Alstom's new hydrogen-powered trains.

Alstom has its sights set on the market for train systems in Europe that are not yet electrified. These systems run on diesel, and many of them are not likely to be electrified any time soon.

Alstom's Michael Wittwer observes:

"Despite numerous electrification projects in several countries, a significant part of Europe’s rail network will remain non-electrified in the long term. In many countries, the number of diesel trains in circulation is still high – more than 4,000 cars in Germany, for instance."

Alstom's solution, which it introduced at the InnoTrans railway transportation trade show last week, is dubbed Coradia iLint.

The company already signed letters of intent with several transportation systems in Germany to bring the Coradia online.

The new train is actually based on Alstom's Coradia Lint 54, which runs on diesel. The diesel version has a strong track record, with more than 2,400 trains in service globally. Alstom appears to be relying on this record to pitch the new zero-emissions version.

To sweeten the pot, Alstom is packaging the train as a turnkey solution that includes maintenance and the entire hydrogen infrastructure, presumably through its partnership with Hydrogenics.

As for how it works, the heart of the system is a fuel cell stack and hydrogen storage tanks. As the train requires electricity, the hydrogen combines with ambient oxygen to generate a charge. The only emission is water.

The system is also supported by lithium-ion battery packs. This auxiliary system is combined with regenerative braking to reduce the consumption of hydrogen.

The primary market consists of existing train routes that rely on diesel. The new train may also have some appeal as a replacement for aging electric systems that are due for an overhaul, especially where aesthetic concerns provide an extra motivation to eliminate overhead wires.

Hydrogen transportation for the U.S. -- and more

Compared to Europe, the U.S. has been a little slow off the starting gate when it comes to hydrogen transportation.

However, the Obama administration launched a series of hydrogen programs ranging from foundational research to support for local initiatives.

One recently announced Energy Department program is called the H2@scale concept. This initiative aims at "wide-scale deployment of hydrogen to deeply decarbonize the U.S. electricity generation, transportation, and industrial sectors," with a focus on renewable hydrogen.

The initiative also looks at deploying heat from nuclear reactors and other industrial processes to produce fossil-free hydrogen.

Hydrogen-powered trains are also on the horizon in America. Texas-based BSNF Railway, for example, is working on a hybrid fuel cell train for urban applications, in partnership with the Engineer Research and Development Center of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

California lent a kickstart to the hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle market, and last year it commissioned a report on the feasibility of hydrogen freight trains.

Image courtesy of Alstom







Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey