A local train route in Germany is becoming the first to run a fleet of hydrogen-powered trains. Hydrogen could be a zero-emissions rail solution on quieter lines where electrification is too expensive.
A local train line not far from Hamburg will start operating exclusively with hydrogen-powered trains, using a fleet of 14 produced by French company Alstom.
Lower Saxony's state premier, Stephan Weil, attended a ceremony in the town of Bremervörde on Wednesday to inaugurate the all-hydrogen line.
"This project is setting a global example, it is an outstanding example for a successful transformation that is 'Made in Lower Saxony,'" Weil said, playing on the English-language slogan "Made in Germany" that is exceedingly popular in German politics and business. "As a renewable energy state, we mark another milestone on the road towards climate neutrality in our transport sector."
According to the developers Alstom, the project aims to save more than 4,000 tons of CO2 emissions annually.
"We own 126 diesel-powered trains, which we use on various lines in Lower Saxony," said Carmen Schwable, a spokeswoman for the LNVG local public transport authority. "We will not buy any more diesel trains, in order to do even more to combat climate change. We too are convinced that diesel trains will no longer be economically viable in future."
Designed in France, assembled in Germany
The €93 million ($92.5 million) project involved designing the Coradia iLint trains in the southern French town of Tarbes and assembling them in Salzgitter in central Germany. The German DLR space agency's "Institute for Concept Vehicles" also contributed to the research.
"Whatever the time of day, passengers will travel on this route thanks to hydrogen," Stefan Schrank, the project manager at Alstom, told the AFP news agency, hailing the development as a "world first."
Developers hope that hydrogen trains could provide a zero-emissions solution for rail travel on lines that are still using diesel, which powers around one fifth of train journeys in Germany.
Eventually, Schrank estimated that in Germany alone "between 2,500 and 3,000 diesel trains could be replaced by hydrogen models."
The Alstom trains have also been used elsewhere in Europe, including the Czech Republic, and hydrogen-based public transport solutions are being showcased more and more. Two short-distance hydrogen trains were on show in Glasgow in the UK last year for the COP21 climate summit. Russia and China are among the countries to have started experimenting with hydrogen-powered trams or streetcars.
Most major rail lines in Europe and Germany are being converted to run using electricity.
However, on less-used local lines, the high costs of electrification cannot always be justified. These costs can become particularly prohibitive if obstacles like tunnels and bridges require alterations to allow for clearance. Electrifying train tracks requires either a third line, uncommon on more rural routes, or overhead cables.
Roughly half of Europe's regional trains still run on diesel.
Hydrogen — electric alternative with no charging times
The Coradia iLint trains fuel up with pure hydrogen, gather oxygen from the ambient air, and a fuel cell converts the two inputs into electric current. The only waste products at the point of power generation are water vapor and heat, meaning developers tout it as zero-emissions.
In some ways, the system is more like an internal combustion engine than a battery-powered vehicle or a train connected to the main electricity grid. It continuously uses hydrogen and air to create the electricity and requires refilling with hydrogen when empty, whereas batteries tend to use chemical energy stored within them.
Famously, Toyota — the first company to have a big commercial hit with partly electric mobility with its hybrid Prius — has since switched the majority of its e-mobility research to hydrogen-powered cars. One of the perceived benefits is the ability to refill the vehicle with hydrogen at a pump, not unlike the current system with petroleum, rather than to have to charge up the batteries.
Partner company Linde, a world leader in making hydrogen refueling stations for road cars, is opening a first hydrogen refueling point for the trains. According to the developers, the trains have a range of up to 1,000 kilometers (up to 620 miles) between refills and can be refueled in 15 minutes.
But there are still drawbacks with hydrogen. While it is the most abundant element on the planet, it is almost always mixed up with others — most recognizably with oxygen to form water. Extracting pure hydrogen remains expensive and requires power. And for now, the cheapest way to do it still involves using fossil fuels. But the costs of using excess renewable energy to extract hydrogen have been falling rapidly, and the expected increases in fossil fuel costs could soon make the method more attractive.
This does however mean that the rail and public transport sector will have to compete with demands from heavy industry, the automobile sector, and others, all looking to tap into the nascent power source in the coming years.
Is hydrogen the fuel of the future?
Edited by: Sean Sinico
Correction: This story has been altered to correct the estimated CO2 saving from the project, which was originally understated. (25.08.2022)
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