World’s First Hydrogen-Powered Trains Travel Silently on Germany’s Railways

published: 2018-09-21 18:02 | editor: | category: News

Hydrogen fuel cells are one of the prospective alternatives to traditional fossil fuels and have been applied to various type of vehicles, including sedans and buses. Since hydrogen fuel cells do not produce carbon emission, governments around the world are considering to incorporate this energy technology into their blueprints for building the future transportation infrastructure. Alstom, a multinational headquartered in France, has introduced a new vehicle option for hydrogen fuel cells. Its Coradia iLint, the world’s first train that runs on hydrogen, officially entered service with much fanfare on 16 September in the German city of Hanover. This event represents not only a milestone in the development of hydrogen-powered passenger trains (or “hydrail”) but also a significant step forward in Germany’s quest to reach its climate target.

Alstom, which specializes in rail transport, is wholly responsible for the development of Coradia iLint. This hydrogen train was first revealed at InnoTrans in Berlin in 2016, and then it completed its first test run in March 2017 in Germany. LNVG, which is the regional transportation authority in the German state of Lower Saxony, agreed to purchase 14 hydrogen trains from Alstom for a total price of around 81 million euros in September of that same year.

Just two hydrogen trains – the world’s first – are now available for service in the railway system of Lower Saxony. All of the 14 trains that LNVG acquired from Alstom are expected to be in service by 2021, operating on routes between Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervörde, and Buxtehude.

Each train car of Coradia iLint is equipped with a set of hydrogen tanks that weigh a total of 94 kilograms when filled. The whole train can carry up to 300 passengers and travel at the maximum speed of 140 kilometers per hour. The distance that Coradia iLint can cover is around 1,000 kilometers, which is the same as the distance covered by the conventional diesel trains. Although hydrogen fuel is much more expensive compared with traditional fossil fuels, its byproduct from the energy conversion process is simply water. Vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells have the advantage of producing no carbon and particulate emissions. It is estimated that the cost of a Coradia iLint will be fully recouped after the 10 years of service.

Photo credit: Alstom

The appearance of Coradia iLint follows the conventional design for train cars. The chemical symbols for hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) are emblazoned on the blue hull of the train cars to indicate the use of the advanced, environment-friendly technology. While Coradia iLint is primarily propelled by the fuel cells that draws hydrogen from the storage tanks, it also has lithium-ion batteries positioned on the underside of the train cars for storing the excess electricity produced by the fuel cells. The lithium-ion batteries provide additional flexibility in power consumption.

Moreover, the smart power management system that is on board ensures that the fuel cells process hydrogen only when the traveling train needs to maintain certain speeds. The fuel cells will power down if the train brakes or proceeds to a full stop. Hence, the smart power management system makes the consumption of the hydrogen gas more efficient. Jens Sprotte, director of urban transport and systems at Alstom, pointed out that hydrogen fuel cells are also much quieter compared with a diesel engine. Coradia iLint actually produces 60% less noise than a diesel locomotive does when traveling. Passengers on the hydrogen train would only hear the winds and the moving wheels.

Currently, around 40% of the entire railway system in Germany is not electrified. Replacing all of the 4,000 diesel-power train cars in the country with hydrogen-powered counterparts is expected to reduce 45% of the total carbon emission from the national railway system. Furthermore, the deployment of hydrogen trains saves costs on overhead lines, power generation, and other things that are needed for the running of conventional electric locomotives.

However, there are still several major challenges in the application of hydrogen fuel cells on trains. The technology has yet to reach maturity, and the energy conversion rates of fuel cells are still not high enough to produce the power needed to support heavier types of vehicle. This is the reason why Coradia iLint can only achieve the fastest speed of 140 kilometers per hour. Also, producing pure hydrogen gas usually involves energy-consuming processes that may require the burning of fossil fuels. Alstom has stated that the company will obtain hydrogen gas produced by processes that rely on power produced by sources of renewable generation, such as the wind farms in Lower Saxony.

To reach its climate target, Germany is implementing strong measures related to energy efficiency, carbon reduction, and renewable generation. The country aims to have renewable energies account for 65% of its total electricity generation by 2030. As for Alstom, the company has also set an ambitious goal of making Germany’s railway system zero carbon within 5-20 years by retiring all the diesel-powered train cars that the system accommodates.

 (The above article is an English translation of a Chinese article written by Daisy Chuang. The credit of the top photo goes to Alstom.)

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