A pair of trains that are among the first in the world to run on hydrogen have started running in Germany. The first of its kind train has shown the world that sustainable rail travel is possible. It is an eco-friendly alternative to diesel locomotives that cough out harmful pollutants into the atmosphere.
The ‘sustainable’, hydrogen – powered trains are running along a 62-mile corridor between towns in Lower Saxony in the northern part of Germany. Germany has already set an example by adopting hydrogen-powered trains, can rest of the world benefit from the technology? Is this really the answer to sustainable rail travel? Let’s find out.
What was the need to have a zero-emissions train?
Pollution from trains is caused by gases and particles released from the combustion of fuel. Trains that run on traditional fuel emit harmful emissions that contribute to tens of thousands of deaths a year. According to an independent study by the University of Cambridge, the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State University Mankato, emissions from trains reduce air quality and pose a risk to passengers and workers.
Aren’t electric trains ‘cleaner’ alternative too?
Although electric trains run on electricity, the way large scale electricity is produced, causes air pollution. Also, electric trains are very big in terms of size, weight, and cost of the battery that runs it. Hydrogen as a fuel is quite similar to diesel. It has a pretty high energy density and takes only 15 minutes to refuel a tank. More tanks can be added, depending on the needs.
How does this train work?
Hydrogen trains have fuel cells that generate electricity via chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen. These trains are also equipped with batteries that store excess electricity until it’s needed. No harmful emissions are produced from these trains because they release only water and steam, unlike the traditional trains that emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
The hydrogen fuel is pumped inside the train from a 40-foot-high steel container erected at one of the stations along the route.
What are the benefits?
The technology that represents a real breakthrough in rail transportation has four main benefits:
- Hydrogen powered trains can travel 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) on one full hydrogen tank and can reach a maximum speed of up to 140 km/h
- They produce zero emissions
- The train is pretty much similar to every other European multi-height train in appearance.
- Hydrogen as a fuel is quite similar to diesel.
What about the running cost?
While the train itself costs more than the traditional diesel trains, they’re cheaper to operate as Hydrogen fuel is easy to produce. It can be obtained from renewable electricity, so all forms of renewable electricity, like – solar farms, wind farms, dams or anything that can generate electricity can generate hydrogen.
Who can benefit from it?
As the shift from diesel engines to clean energy continues, almost every country is expected to benefit from it:
- Countries with limited petroleum reserves, including Japan, Germany and other nations can benefit from this technology.
- Heavily polluted countries that rely largely on trains for transportation can benefit from it, including India, China, United States.
- As the world’s largest producer of natural gas, the United States can greatly benefit from it. Dependency on fuel import would lessen. And as hydrogen fuel is easily available in the US, running hydrogen trains in the country will be cheaper.
Other countries planning to have hydrogen trains
While Germany plans to have 14 hydrogen-powered trains built and used in the country by 2021, very soon other countries will too start running hydrogen-powered trains, they include:
Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, Norway, and Canada. The French government has already shared its plans to have hydrogen-powered trains by 2022.
Hydrogen powered trains are a significant milestone in environmental protection and technical innovation. With the transportation sector being one of the major contributors of air pollution, it seems like hydrogen trains could be the weapon we have been looking for in the fight against climate change.