German railway will switch completely to hydrogen

A local railway line in Germany is the first to run a fleet of hydrogen-powered trains.  Hydrogen may be a zero-emissions rail answer on quieter strains wherein electrification is simply too expensive.

A local train line far from Hamburg will begin operating exclusively with hydrogen-powered trains, using a fleet of 14 produced by French company Alstom.

Lower Saxony’s state premier, Stefan Weil, inaugurated the all-hydrogen line at a ceremony in the town of Bremervorde on Wednesday.

The first commercial test of the new type of train took place in 2018 on the route between Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervรถrde and Buxtehude.  Some hydrogen locomotives ran on routes of about 100-kilometre (about 60-miles), but diesel-powered trains offered even greater mileage.

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“This project is a global example, an excellent example of a successful adaptation of ‘Made in Lower Saxony,'” Weyl said, playing up the English-language slogan “Made in Germany” that is increasingly popular in German politics.  and business.  “As a renewable electricity state, we mark every other milestone on the street to weather neutrality in our transportation sector.”

According to Lower Saxony’s local rail network, the project aims to save around 8 tons of CO2 emissions annually.

“We have 126 diesel-powered trains that we use on various routes in Lower Saxony,” said Carmen Schwable, spokeswoman for the local public transport authority LNVG.  “We will not buy any more diesel trains to do more to combat climate change. We are convinced that diesel trains will no longer be economically viable in the future.”

The train uses hydrogen and oxygen to generate electrical energy using fuel cells;ย  The waste products in the source are water vapour and heat

Designed in France, assembled in Germany

The โ‚ฌ93 million ($92.5 million) project involved designing Coradia Island trains in the southern French town of Tarbes and assembling them in Salzgitter in central Germany.  The “Institute for Concept Vehicles” of the German DLR space agency also contributed to the research.

“Regardless of the time of day, passengers will travel on this route because of hydrogen,” Stefan Schrank, Alstom’s project manager, told the AFP news agency, hailing the development as a “world first”.

Developers hope that hydrogen trains could provide a zero-emissions solution for train travel on lines that still use diesel, which powers about a fifth of train journeys in Germany.

Ultimately, Schrank estimates that “between 2,500 and 3,000 diesel trains could be replaced by hydrogen models” in Germany alone.

Alstom trains are used elsewhere in Europe, including in the Czech Republic, and hydrogen-based public transport solutions are increasingly being demonstrated.  Two short-distance hydrogen trains were on display last year in Glasgow, UK, for the COP21 climate summit.  Russia and China are among the countries that have begun experimenting with hydrogen-powered trams, or streetcars.

Other companies are also examining the technology.  German engineering large Siemens examined its first prototype hydrogen educate this year, hoping to roll it out in 2024.

Why not electrify the line?

Most major railway lines in Europe and Germany are being converted to run on electricity.

However, on low-use local routes, the high cost of electrification is not always justified.  These costs can be particularly prohibitive if changes are required to allow clearance of obstacles such as tunnels and bridges.  Electrifying railway tracks requires a third way, unusual on more rural routes, or overhead cables.

Roughly 1/2 of of Europe’s nearby trains nonetheless run on diesel.

Hydrogen – an electric alternative with no charging times

The Coradia iLint trains fuel with pure hydrogen, collects oxygen from ambient air, and a fuel cell converts the two inputs into electrical current.  The only waste products during the power generation phase are water vapour and heat, meaning the developers say it’s 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 power grid.  It uses hydrogen and air continuously to create electricity and needs to be replenished with hydrogen when depleted, whereas batteries use the chemical energy stored within them.

Famously, Toyota โ€“ the first company to have a big commercial hit with partially electric mobility with its hybrid Prius โ€“ has since shifted much of its e-mobility research to hydrogen-powered cars.  One of the perceived benefits is the ability to refill the vehicle with hydrogen at the pump, not unlike the current system with petroleum, which instead requires charging the batteries.

Partner company Linde, a world leader in hydrogen refuelling stations for road cars, is opening the first hydrogen refuelling point for trains.  According to developers, the trains have a range of up to 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) between refills and can be refueled in 15 minutes.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his deputy Robert Habeck, who is also the Minister of Economy and Climate Protection, have returned from a trip to Canada, whose main objective was to sign a new agreement on future green hydrogen imports.

But there are still drawbacks with hydrogen.  Although it is the most abundant element on the planet, it always mixes with others – most notably with oxygen to form water.  Extracting pure hydrogen is expensive and requires energy.  And right now, the cheapest way to do that still involves using fossil fuels.  But the rapidly falling cost of using additional renewable energy to extract hydrogen and the expected increase in fossil fuel costs will soon make the approach more attractive.

However, this means that the rail and public transport sector will have to compete with demands from heavy industry, the automobile sector and others, which will want to tap new sources of energy in the coming years.

Sources DW

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