French train construction company Alstom built two hydrogen-powered trains and delivered them to Germany last weekend, where they will whiz along a 100-kilometer track that runs from the northern cities of Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde and Buxtehude. The new trains replace their diesel counterparts and are the first of their kind, but probably not the last. Alstom has been contracted to deliver 14 more hydrogen-powered trains before 2021, the so-called Coradia iLint trains.
The trains are a first step towards lowering Germany’s transport-related emissions, a sector that has been unmanageable for policymakers in the country. But hydrogen fuel faces some chicken-and-egg problem. Hydrogen is difficult to store, and to make it a truly zero-emission fuel source, renewable electricity is needed to perform water electrolysis. The most common option for making hydrogen fuel is natural gas reforming, which is not a carbon neutral process.
The advantages of hydrogen fuel cells are that – unlike battery-powered vehicles – refueling a vehicle on hydrogen is just as fast as a vehicle powered by fossil fuels. You don’t have to sit still and charge overnight. However, trains usually don’t run on batteries when they are electric because they are so heavy. Electric train systems tend to use catenary systems, where electrified cables supply the train with electricity. But over long distances, setting up an external source of electricity can be expensive.
Paul Mutolo, the director of External Partnerships for the Energy Materials Center at Cornell University, said in a statement that he thinks hydrogen-powered trains are a great idea. “Germany, a world leader in developing hydrogen fuel cell technology, is another great example for the United States to follow. Heavy transport is the next market for hydrogen fuel cell products.”
For the time being, the two Alstom trains in Bremervörde are refueling from “a 40-meter high steel container next to the track” at the station, according to the train builder. The company did not comment on how the hydrogen fuel will be supplied and did not respond to requests for comment.
A press release stated that a “stationary gas station” is also being built to serve the additional 14 trains. It is expected to be ready in 2021.
Alstom noted that each of its trains has a range of 1,000 km (621 miles), so it can effectively refuel once and run through the system for the rest of the day. The trains can reach a top speed of 140 km/h. Excess energy not used to propel the train is stored in an extra battery. Because fuel cells power electric motors in fuel cell vehicles, they are also quieter than diesel locomotives.
One problem, of course, is the cost. It’s unclear what all the trains will cost, although Alstom’s press release says Lower Saxony, the German state where the trains will run, supported the purchase of the 14 additional trains with €81 million ($94.5 million). In addition, “The federal government has actively supported the development and testing of the new propulsion technology in Lower Saxony by providing funds from the National Innovation Program for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology.”
List image by René Frampe, Alstom