The zero-emission future of the transportation sector has prompted an increasing number of energy policy debates on railroad electrification. At Hannover Messe, it was Alstom’s new fuel cell train that garnered much attention. After having been developed in less than two years, it had its first run in mid-March and will reportedly be used to transport passengers starting in 2018.
The attention of fuel cell stakeholders is slowly but gradually shifting away from personal transport and turning to railroad and commercial operations. Whereas European automakers are not pulling out all the roadblocks when it comes to fuel cell development, it seems that everyone else is beginning to view hydrogen as a plus for heavier vehicles (buses, trucks and trains) to extend their range way beyond what batteries would be capable of on their own. Hydrogen-powered trains and fuel cell trucks could soon be outmaneuvering H2 cars.
Right on schedule
Up to now, everything has been right on schedule. On May 27, 2015, Alstom Transport signed an exclusive agreement with Hydrogenics, a technology supplier from Canada (see October 2015 issue of H2-international). Valued at over EUR 50 million, it has provided the grounds for a ten-year collaboration between both businesses and the prospect of at least 200 drive systems based on the HD series by the Canadian-based business. Last year, Alstom received the first fuel cell system based on this agreement and presented it to the public as part of the Coradia LINT prototype at InnoTrans 2016. It said that the March test trip was the first of a low-floor fuel cell passenger train at 80 kph (50 mph). The train didn’t leave the company’s own track system in Salzgitter, and the next scheduled tests at up to 140 kph (87 mph) will be done in Velim in the Czech Republic. But in 2018 – just around three years after the agreement was signed – it will make its first regular run from Buxtehude to Bremervörde and Bremerhaven to Cuxhaven (see November 2016 issue of H2-international).
With EUR 8 million in support from the National Innovation Program Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology, Alstom converted a diesel model from the Coradia LINT family into a fuel cell version. Two units offer enough room for 300 passengers (150 seats) and have been equipped with an entirely new smart energy grid supplying power on demand to all components of the train.
Energy is stored in the roof-mounted hydrogen tanks manufactured by Xperion and installed by Wystrach. The roof is also the place where the Hydrogenics fuel cell system is located. The lithium-ion batteries were placed between the train wheels, where they can additionally be used to recover braking energy.
The electric-only version guarantees low noise levels, but apart from that, it is comparable to any other regional train – just more environmentally friendly and without the need for overhead lines. Its range is said to be 800 kilometers or 497 miles per day at a maximum speed of 140 kilometers or 87 miles per hour. Alstom developed the technology jointly in Salzgitter and Tarbes, France. It has already been TÜV-certified and will reportedly have railroad administration approval by the end of this year.
Lower Saxony backs fuel cell network expansion
There was even an entire podium discussion dedicated to fuel cell trains at the Public Forum of the joint H2 and fuel cell booth at Hannover Messe. Jens Sprotte, director of urban transport & systems at Alstom Transport Deutschland, was pleased to announce that “zero-emission commuter rail will come – as early as the end of this year.”
Lower Saxony’s economy minister, Olaf Lies, who was visibly proud of the fact that these railcars will both be run in the state and be manufactured in one of its cities, Salzgitter, added: “We are talking about really substantial figures here. […] My colleagues from other states quickly jumped on the bandwagon, so to speak. […] This means an actual, big roll-out over the coming years and consequently, a chance to bring a technology that is in heavy use at home to the global market.” Alstom’s statement that it had already signed letters of intent for 60 railcars with Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg and Rhein-Main-Verkehrsverbund in Hesse fitted right in.
Sprotte stressed that it had been important to Alstom not to end up in the same situation as the automotive industry, an allusion to the chicken-and-egg dilemma in hydrogen supply. “If we want to grow the segment, we need to offer a complete package. We will look for a reliable business partner to supply the hydrogen,” he said. It is the reason for Alstom investing not only in train development and maintenance, but also in an H2 infrastructure. Sprotte said that an all-in-one approach would make it “possible to drive down costs and outcompete diesel engines.” He added: “There’s no option that can match a fuel cell’s viability in heavy duty applications and commuter rail.”
From “gray” to green hydrogen
In the beginning, 70 percent of the hydrogen required for the new train system is said to come from the chemical industry. This byproduct of chemical reactions called “gray hydrogen” will later be supplanted by gas produced through electrolysis, meaning “green hydrogen.” However, Sprotte added that the big problem was the cost of electricity. “The renewable energy surcharge adds eight to ten cents to the price tag. It is our hope that the next years will see changes in this policy, so that we can make large-scale use of electrolyzers.” The only reply Klaus Bonhoff, chair of NOW, could give was that the issue was “being debated intensively” and that there had already been many people who had “realized that there is great potential.”
Olaf Lies immediately followed up by saying: “We need to double our efforts to install a decentralized H2 infrastructure – be it for passenger cars, trucks, buses or trains. This expansion will require an increase in the use of electrolysis.”
Some German states have already started requesting bids for zero-emission commuter rail, putting Alstom in competition with other businesses, for example, from the battery industry. GP Joule’s managing director, Ove Petersen, has said that his company was currently bidding on a project to adapt diesel train tracks for fuel cell use. This one project alone would require 20 megawatts of electrolysis capacity, he said.