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Alstom launches hydrogen-powered trains

September 17, 2018

French train maker Alstom has rolled out the world's first hydrogen-powered train on a regular route in Germany, in a push to challenge the reign of polluting diesel trains with costlier but more eco-friendly technology.

Deutschland Wasserstoffzug
Image: Getty Images/AFP/P. Stollarz

Alstom began running two Cordia iLint trains on the 100-kilometer (62-mile) route between the cities of Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde and Buxtehude in northern Germany on Monday.

The non-electrified stretch has so far been serviced by diesel trains. Alstom is betting on the technology as a greener, quieter alternative to diesel on such railway lines, saying it plans to deliver another 14 of the zero-emission trains to the local transport authority of Lower Saxony (LNVG) by 2021. LNVG will in turn lease them to a contracted train operator, the  Eisenbahnen und Verkehrsbetriebe Elbe-Weser GmbH (EVB).

"The world's first hydrogen train is entering into commercial service and is ready for serial production," Alstom Chief Executive Henri Poupart-Lafarge said at an unveiling ceremony in Bremervoerde, the station where the trains will be refueled with hydrogen.

Read more: Hydrogen and wind: Allies for sustainable energy

Hydrogen trains are equipped with fuel cells that produce electricity through a combination of hydrogen and oxygen, a process that leaves steam and water as the only emissions.

Under ambitious climate-saving goals, Germany aims to reduce its CO2 emissions by 40 percent by 2020 compared with 1990 levels, and has committed to using 80 percent renewable energy in power supplies by 2050. It's therefore unsurprising that Alstom signed letters of intent with four German states in 2014, under which it committed to provide 60 trains in total.

Hydrogen hits the road

'Train of the future'

Alstom's bright-blue colored train was first introduced to the world at the rail industry trade fair Innotrans in 2016, and dubbed by the company as the "train of the future." It can run for around 1,000 kilometers on a single tank of hydrogen, which is similar to the range of diesel trains.

At the core of the iLint system is a fuel cell situated on top of the train. Hydrogen is supplied to the cell and then combined with oxygen taken from the ambient air inside it. The two products of this chemical reaction are electricity, which is used to power an electrical traction drive controlling the train's movements, and water, which is emitted as steam.

Any electrical energy that's not immediately used for traction can be stored in lithium-ion batteries on the train's underside. An auxiliary converter will also be used to adapt the energy for various on-board applications, including air conditioning, door systems and passenger information displays.

Aside from its clean output, iLint's key advantages are its smart power management and flexible energy storage. Electrical energy is supplied on demand, meaning the fuel cell is only required to work in full operation when the train is accelerating over sustained periods. When the train brakes, the fuel cells are almost completely powered down, saving on hydrogen consumption.

LNVG said the 14 trains it had bought from Alstom would cost about €81 million ($94.7 million), which is more than it would have to spend on the same number of conventional diesel-powered trains. But Stefan Schrank, the project's manager at Alstom, said the investment would be worth it.

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"Sure, buying a hydrogen train is somewhat more expensive than a diesel train, but it is cheaper to run," he told the news agency AFP.

Hydrogen infrastructure

Nevertheless, there is still the question of how trains will be refueled and where the hydrogen will come from in the long term. During the initial phase, Alstom will source its hydrogen from industrial emissions.

The French train maker has pledged though that it will make things easier for operators by providing maintenance services and hydrogen infrastructure — in particular, filling stations.

Read more: Japan gets serious about hydrogen fueling stations

The company is currently looking to green methods to produce fuel for iLint. One existing example is electrolysis, which involves splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen — the iLint formula in reverse.

Another is natural gas reformation, which involves combining methane contained in natural gases with high-temperature steam. Germany's recent investment in Energiepark Mainz, a plant designed to generate hydrogen from wind power, may also become a viable source of hydrogen.

Ambitious climate protection goals and the expense of electrification could help bring the iLint to other European countries in the future. Alstom said there was a strong interest from operators in Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Italy and Canada. The French government has already announced plans for its first hydrogen train to be on the rails by 2022.

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uhe/tr (AFP, dpa)