Fuel cells propel trains to a hydrogen future

By Jeanne Erdmann, reprinted with permission from IEC E-TECH, March 2010.

A 'switch-locomotive' prototype recently rolled along the tracks in January in sunny Los Angeles, California, USA and more prototypes are under development worldwide.

'Fuel cells are a very attractive solution for trains in consideration that their application can eliminate the use of critical elements like pantographs and overhead contact lines,' says Giansvaldo Fadin, Vice President of Far Systems and Convenor, IEC technical committee 9, 'Electrical equipment and systems for railways', working groups 43 and 46. 'Indeed the introduction of fuel cells on the trains could reduce the infrastructure complexity.'

In Japan, where many trains crisscross the country's four main islands, two competing trains are now running for on-track testing: the New Energy Hybrid, designed and built by the East Japan Railway Company, and the fuel cells propulsion train, designed and built by Japan's Railway Transportation Research Institute. Burlington Santa Fe Railway Company developed the switch-locomotive prototype that made its Los Angeles debut in its railway workshop in Topeka, Kansas, USA. The locomotive programme for Vehicle Projects Inc, in Denver, Colorado, USA, is working in partnership with the US government to develop a fuel cell-hybrid switcher locomotive.

In 2002, Vehicle Projects finished a fuel cell locomotive by retrofitting a battery-powered locomotive that already had an electric drive. The company's website describes a current prototype as weighing 127 tonnes and using a fuel cell-hybrid switcher that came from a commercially available diesel-battery hybrid switcher with a 200 kW diesel prime mover. Colorado hosts a large mining industry, and Vehicle Projects' prototype trains can be used in that sector as well.

Several of the prototypes are being developed for switch locomotives, which move train cars short distances and from track to track. Such an engine could reduce carbon emissions and provide a stationary, hybrid power plant that could have military or civilian uses, such as powering small buildings during disaster relief. An Amtrak diesel-electric locomotive powered a temporary jail following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 on the Gulf of Mexico coast of the USA.

The European Commission is financing a project called HyRAIL. According to the HyRAIL project plan, a prototype will be tested in on-track service in Denmark in 2011. In the plan, which is available online the HyRail consortium asserts a future for hydrogen and fuel cells propulsion for European railways.

'The hydrogen and fuel cells propulsion might not be the ultimate solution for solving all energy problems and reducing CO2 emissions,' the report says. 'Indeed, the HyRail Consortium is generally convinced that we will succeed in making this technology popular in the railway world, providing a good platform for exchanging points of view and encouraging the railway world with a scientifically well-founded feasibility study to think about one new way of propulsion.'

Many issues will need to be resolved before fuel cells take over locomotive engines. Among them are safety, power, and finding ways to refuel in a quick and efficient manner. For now, a fuel cell technology suitable for train application is not yet fully available. The existing technology lacks power density and power capability because locomotives need power that ranges from 2 MW in small multiple units up to 10 MW in high-speed trains. Nevertheless the research is ongoing, and fuel cell experts predict that technology will fill the gap.

Providing emergency power and changing infrastructure represent a small portion of what fuel cells can offer the train industry. Transportation, of which trains are a major segment, produces more than its share of pollution, and consumes much energy to boot. Replacing overhead contact lines with fuel cells helps not only with infrastructure but also with aesthetics. Replacing diesel engines with fuel cells will also have a dramatic reduction on carbon dioxide emissions and on fuel costs.

'The use of hydrogen as a railway fuel is very attractive because of no dirty exhaust, fuel sourcing availability, and maintenance cost reduction,' says Fadin. 'In the railway field, the perfect application of fuel cells is the replacement of the propulsion system of diesel locomotives.'

Published in transport.