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Hydrogen on Track

Trains and industrial equipment now, cars later

5 min read

Hydrogen is routinely dismissed as a ”decades away” fuel technology for vehicle propulsion. But while much attention has been focused on fuel-cell-powered passenger cars, a little-noticed but promising development has been taking place in rail transportation and heavy industry, where experiments with hydrogen-fuel-cell propulsion are well under way.

Among the objectives: running equipment that operates indoors or underground on fuel cells rather than on batteries; powering small rail ­systems at mines, factories, and military bases; and replacing diesel-electric locomotives on suburban lines with fuel-cell-driven electric motors. One company at the forefront of these developments is Vehicle Projects LLC, in Denver.

In one job, Vehicle Projects is retrofitting a 109-metric-ton diesel-electric yard-switcher locomotive with a power train that features polymer electrolyte membrane, or PEM, hydrogen-fuel-cell stacks [see photograph, " "]. The cells, made by Nuvera Fuel Cells Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., combine hydrogen and oxygen in a chemical reaction that yields heat, water, and electricity to power a 1.2â''megawatt locomotive. It was commissioned jointly by the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Department of Energy, the government of Japan, and the National Automotive Center, in Warren, Mich. The seven-year project began in 2003.

”The army is interested in fuel-cell locomotives because they can serve as mobile backup power supplies for military bases,” says Arnold R. Miller, president of Vehicle Projects. ”If you have this fuel-cell locomotive, rated for 1.2 megawatts,” he said, ”it will serve its primary role as a switch engine in military rail yards. But in the event of an attack on a base, a failure of the grid, or some natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, you could drive it to wherever you need it, hook it up, and provide enough power for about 1000 homes or to keep people who are dependent on respirators or dialysis machines alive.”

Vehicle Projects, spun out of the Colorado School of Mines, in Golden, is recognized as the first company to have built a fuel-cell locomotive. Its earlier 3.6-metric-ton, 17-kilowatt hydrogen-powered mine locomotive—for which Nuvera also supplied PEM fuel cell stacks—was completed in 2002 and demonstrated in a working mine in Ontario [see photo, " "]. ”We retrofitted a battery-powered locomotive, because it already had an electric drive,” says Miller.

Miller says that the mine locomotive served as a proof of concept for all that needs to be verified in a fuel-cell vehicle. Is it safe? Can you easily and regularly refuel the vehicle? Does it deliver enough power for industrial, commercial, and commuter applications? Compared with the battery-powered locomotive it replaced, he says, ”it had twice the power and could be refueled with hydrogen in 30 to 45 minutes, as opposed to 8 hours.”

Vehicle Projects is also playing a role in the race to build the first commuter fuel-cell locomotive. It has supplied a 150-kW fuel-cell power plant, consisting of eight fuel-cell stacks and ancillary equipment like a water pump and an air compressor, to Tokyo’s Railway Technical Research Institute (RTRI). The institute is battling Japan Rail East for the honor of running the first fuel-cell locomotive on a passenger line. The winner is likely to come forward in the next year or two.

RTRI is planning a two-car locomotive—one carrying electric motors, a transformer, and a battery charged by regenerative braking, and the other holding fuel-cell stacks and a hydrogen storage cylinder. The train’s top speed will be 120 kilometers per hour, and it will travel 300 to 400 km before its hydrogen needs replenishing. Officials say they hope to have the train ready by 2010, and a prototype, with one-fourth the propulsion power of the proposed final version, is already being tested.

Japan Rail East says a hybrid locomotive that it is designing will get about one-third of its propulsion power from two 65-kW electric motors driven by onboard fuel cells and the rest from a diesel engine. It will start traversing the mountainous Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures west of Tokyo by the summer of 2007.

Experts on hydrogen rail, or hydrail, say railroads around the world are taking a serious look at alternatives to diesel because of skyrocketing fuel costs. ”Railroads see what’s happening to the airlines, which are losing billions of dollars a year, mostly attributable to the increased price of fuel,” says Vehicle Projects’ Miller.

Denmark, for example, plans to put hydrogen-fueled trains on a 59-km-long commuter rail line linking three cities in Western Jutland around 2010. The locomotives will rely partly on ­hydrogen liberated as a by-product in chemical manufacturing and partly on hydrogen specially obtained by electrolysis, using electricity from wind turbines. At ­present, Denmark gets upward of 35 percent of its electricity from wind, so the project’s planners are confident that it will be a consistent source of power to produce hydrogen.

The Denmark project is being supervised by a European consortium called simply The Hydrogen Train. Participants include the Hydrogen Innovation and Research Center, or HIRC, which is also developing a small hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered warehouse truck and a hydrogen fishing vessel; the Danish Technological Institute; H2 Logic, a Danish company that designs, manufactures, and sells fuel cells and equipment for producing and storing hydrogen; and the Vemb-Lemvig-Thyborøn Jernbane railway. The group, which is looking to introduce hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered locomotives to the line by 2010, estimates that the energy provided by a single 1-MW windmill would be enough to run 2 two-car trains like the ones that currently serve the line.

Officials at HIRC say the switch to hydrogen power will likely occur in two phases: first will come diesel-electric locomotives retrofitted to burn hydrogen directly instead of diesel fuel, then trains featuring fuel cells plus a battery to store charge from regenerative braking.

One seemingly unlikely place that hydrail has attracted attention is Charlotte, N.C., a rapidly growing city in the U.S. Southeast. The Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS), the city’s mass transit authority, is planning to convert a freight line stretching 48 km from its downtown area to downtown Mooresville, N.C., into a commuter rail connection between the cities by 2009.

Back in 2001, when the project was still in the early planning stages, a group of hydrogen enthusiasts started asking about a cheaper, more environmentally friendly alternative to the locomotive-hauled coaches and multiple-diesel-unit trains that CATS’s planners assumed would serve the line. The group was led by H. Stan Thompson, an IEEE Life Member who also heads the Mooresville Chamber of Commerce’s Hydrogen Economy Advancement Team.

Charlotte’s transit authority initially ruled out hydrogen because at that point, no one had ever built a fuel-cell-powered locomotive. Two years later, however, Vehicle Projects’ mine locomotive made its debut. Now, says David J. Carol, project manager at the transit authority, ”we strongly support the work the hydrail folks have done, and we have stated our willingness to test that technology on the rail line.” Carol noted that the Charlotte�Mooresville line would be ”a very good proving ground for a hydrogen-powered locomotive.” To that end, the Mooresville contingent is still trying to drum up interest in the line, hoping that hydrogen technology developers will seek it out as a test bed.

Largely because of their efforts, the first international conference devoted to hydrail was held in Charlotte in May 2005. Herning, Denmark, was the site of the second International Hydrail Conference, on 7 June this year. The conference’s organizers hoped that the event would attract the attention of train manufacturers interested in using the Danish line to test other hybrid locomotive designs.

Meanwhile, hydrogen is proving to be the fuel of choice for other industrial purposes. Prashant S. Chintawar, executive director of government contracts at Nuvera, says that these include standby power, airport baggage tractors, forklifts, and shuttle buses. ”It makes sense,” he says, ”to focus on these applications where there is a market in the near term.”

Air Canada is running a government-supported trial of fuel-cell-powered vehicles for ferrying baggage to and from aircraft. The vehicles in the trial, at Vancouver International Airport, will be produced by General Hydrogen Corp., of Richmond, B.C., using fuel cells from Ballard Power Systems Inc., of Burnaby, B.C.

As for hydrail, Chintawar says, ”I don’t think the locomotive industry will be embracing fuel cells simply because they’re green and clean. Eventually, they want to see the business case, and we hope that we will be able to meet the challenge as the cost of oil makes fuel cells more attractive.”

CATS’s Carol says that before public transit authorities undertake a mass conversion of their rail fleets, they will have to be satisfied that hydrogen-powered locomotives offer vehicle acceleration, maintenance costs, and reliability comparable to those of existing technology. In reply, Vehicle Projects’ Miller says: ”One of the principles we follow is that there will never be any degradation in performance [from what is currently used]. Nobody’s going to buy a new technology if it performs worse than what it looks to replace.”

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