Could trains ever run on hydrogen?


The past year has been strong for green hydrogen, at least in terms of media attention. The actual production of green hydrogen has not changed significantly, and there are a multitude of reasons for this, not least of which is the cost. And yet all is not lost for green hydrogen and not just because the EU is determined to build 40 GW of production capacity, whatever the cost.

It’s because of the trains. From France Alstom first presented its Coradia iLint train powered by a hydrogen fuel cell in 2016. Two years later, the first iLint train was put into service in Germany. Last year, Alstom mentionned that from next year it will launch 14 iLint trains to replace diesel trains.

However, nowhere does Alstom say that the hydrogen it uses in the fuel cells of its iLint trains is green. But the fact that hydrogen trains are already in service offers a silver lining that even green hydrogen production will one day become commercially viable outside of optimistic forecasts from various energy consulting firms.

Rail transport appears to be the perfect proving ground for hydrogen technology, according to a recent report from the The Wall Street Journal. According to a report by Roland Berger, writes Rochelle Toplensky of the WSJ this week, the total cost of ownership of Alstom hydrogen trains is already comparable to that of trains running on diesel or electricity. Again, the report doesn’t focus specifically on green hydrogen, but it’s a start.

Hydrogen faces a few significant hurdles in entering the most expensive mainstream fuel, followed by a lack of infrastructure. As the WSJ’s Toplensky aptly puts it, this is a classic egg or chicken problem. This is very clearly visible in the hydrogen automotive industry.

There are few models of hydrogen passenger cars, and despite their attractive features, they remain unpopular, first because of the higher price, and then because of the lack of a well-developed network of service stations. If this sounds familiar to you, it’s because electric vehicles have the same problem. But while the Biden administration in the United States and the European Union across the Atlantic is dealing with this with plans to build such grids, hydrogen is more or less self-sufficient.

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The need for stations is another reason why rail transport is the perfect testing ground and adoption for hydrogen fuel cells. Trains do not need to fill up every two stations. They need several strategically placed gas stations.

“We want to focus on large industrial bases and mobility corridors to build the infrastructure. Trains are a good baseload and a good target for us, ”said Toplensky of the WSJ, citing the vice president of Air Liquide, the French major in industrial gases. “We know when they start and arrive, go from point A to point B, and the frequency. It is much easier to develop infrastructure for trains than for trucks. “

Electric trains are good for the environment, but they’re not exactly the cheapest form of transportation. Without government help, electric trains would likely be forgotten under the pressure of market forces. But hydrogen trains are cheaper than electric trains. This is a place where hydrogen fuel cell technology looks set to shine and may further inspire investors to look at hydrogen technology applicable to other segments of the transportation industry at some point.

It’s hard to say how long until green hydrogen becomes viable, even for trains. The technology requires major scale-up – and much higher carbon prices – to equalize to start approaching the costs of blue or gray hydrogen. Yet green hydrogen is the end point of hydrogen evolution, not the first step. The first step is to find a place where hydrogen can glow, and it looks like rail transport has found that place.

By Irina Slav for Oil Octobers

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