Carbon neutral rail: fuel cell study highlights travel of the future

carbon neutral rail
© iStock/Mikhail Rudenko

A new study has been launched to investigate the potential of fuel cells and hydrogen in the implementation of carbon neutral rail travel.

The study, commissioned by the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU) and Shift2Rail Joint Undertaking (S2R JU), analyses opportunities to facilitate the wider introduction of fuel cells and hydrogen (FCH) technologies within the European railway market; and indicates significant market potential for FCH technologies in the rail environment. The technology provides a flexible, zero emission and potentially cost competitive solution underpinning clear business cases to replace diesel trains with carbon neutral rail solutions, within certain contexts.

The study on the use of fuel cells and hydrogen in the railway environment assesses the state of the art; the business case; the market potential; 10 specific case studies and the main barriers to the use of FCH technologies in different rail applications. The analysis of 10 selected case studies across Europe revealed attractive use cases and potential boundary conditions for FCH technologies within the rail environment. However, several barriers were identified that must be overcome in order to unlock its full potential. Three targeted research and innovation topics have been proposed as the means to tackle the most important of these barriers.

Applications evaluated in the study included multiple units, shunter locomotives and freight locomotives. Some cases already show a positive Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for fuel cells, while in other applications fuel cells are recognised as the most adequate zero emission alternative for carbon neutral rail.

Bart Biebuyck, executive director of the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen 2 Joint Undertaking, told us about the potential for the use of this technology in trains as a way of building carbon neutral rail transport.

How do these technologies work and how do they compare to other similar technologies?

42% of the EU’s railways are not electrified, relying instead on diesel. Both the Paris Climate Agreement and the EU have set strict climate targets which we must work to achieve. One of the reasons why some of these railways are not yet electrified is that these routes are not used frequently, which means that the investment is not as feasible. Popular routes are already electrified because it made financial sense to do this. We looked at how we can decarbonise the other routes and hydrogen and fuel cell technology looked like a good way to do this. We did a study to see how we can use this technology on other types of trains as there are many variants of trains that we are using today.

One very interesting outcome of this study is that hydrogen and fuel cell technology become very favourable over long distances, where it is expensive to run diesel trains. For FCH you only need to have a hydrogen fuelling station at the beginning and end point and a long track in the middle. This means the investments are much smaller and that it is easier to gain a return on investment.

What are the benefits of these technologies and what is their market potential?

This technology is absolutely zero emission, so nothing comes out other than water from the tail pipe. If you want to use this as a base fuel then you have to put in oxygen in order to create electricity and heat. In winter we use the heat to warm up passenger cabins and electricity is used to propel the electric motors to propel the train itself. This contributes significantly to the United Nations’ Sustainability Development Goals and the EU’s emissions reduction targets. Hydrogen is very light – it is 14 times lighter than air – and can be compressed easily, so trains can carry a lot of the fuel, meaning they are able to drive long distances before needing to refuel. Also, refuelling only takes three minutes and trains can travel up to 700km on a single refuel. The benefit there is that the customer does not need to change their habits. This is why carbon neutral rail is becoming so popular and governments are looking closely into rolling this out.

The market potential for this technology is huge: there is a financially sound business case and the technology does not need to be heavily subsidised. At the beginning some public support will be necessary because the technology is still very new, but when it comes to scaling, once large orders start to come in subsidies will not be required anymore. Germany is beginning to take up FCH already: they have one or two trains running and have ordered another 287 of them. It is clear that there is a case here and now we also see other countries such as the Netherlands, Austria and the UK looking towards hydrogen trains. Even though this is still in demonstration, these are the first steps on the road to adoption of carbon neutral rail technology across the whole of Europe.

What are the challenges and barriers to the use of FCH technologies in different rail applications?

The challenges predominantly fall into two main categories: firstly, companies must make the requisite preparations to scale up their operations. Second, the regulatory framework is not yet standardised – particularly with regard to moving trains between countries – so regulation must be clarified further.

The hydrogen refuelling stations need investment. There will have to be a global discussion with train operators about who is paying for hydrogen refuelling infrastructures – will it be the operators or providers? It is a challenge that we will need to address in the future. Hydrogen trains is more expensive if operators also have to install the infrastructure, whereas if the providers have to build the infrastructure it will be cheaper. From the perspective of the taxpayer it will be much more cost efficient to invest in FCH trains than other types of trains.

How long will it be until these technologies can be brought to the market or rolled out on a large scale?

Germany is beginning to roll the technology out and has had FCH trains in place since last year; so citizens can profit from these trains already. It will be three or four years before they reach beyond 100 trains. With other countries it might take a bit longer; however, in the next five years we will see many countries taking up their first hydrogen trains, then by 2030 it will become much more normal. The future will see the combination of different kinds of technology –small lines will be powered by batteries; long distance and heavy duty freight will use hydrogen. The key point is that they all produce zero emissions.

How can carbon neutral rail technology be integrated with current infrastructure?

Trains can be retrofitted with these fuel cells, but it is not necessarily the most efficient way. For example, when we look into the trains that Siemens are planning to build, they are a complete redesign. Seimens want to make sure that hydrogen refuelling tanks are stored on the roof and the fuel cell packs are integrated in the whole train, so they do not eat up space for the passengers. In the UK they used an existing train and retrofitted it for purpose of demonstration. This is great, but once you get into mass commercialisation it needs to be redesigned to have very good integration of the tanks. Freight trains and dual propulsion trains will need to be retrofitted because they have been in use for 30 to 40 years. So far we have funded 244 projects in Europe relating to the integration of this technology. We have spent so far €1.7 billion both privately and publicly since 2008. We examine how to develop hydrogen fuelling systems for cars, planes and everything in between – ships, trains, trucks, buses – but we also investigate fuelling infrastructures; so it is a very broad portfolio of responsibilities.

Bart Biebuyck

Executive Director

Fuel Cells and Hydrogen 2 Joint Undertaking

www.fch.europa.eu

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