Transport innovation of the week: hydrogen trains

This is Alstom’s new zero-carbon train, the Coradia iLint. It is powered by hydrogen fuel cell, and designed to replace diesel trains on regional routes.

For many rail routes, the path to lower climate emissions lies with electrification and renewable energy. But on smaller routes it won’t be cost effective to electrify, and that’s where hydrogen trains might fit in. Alstom’s train is based on their existing diesel model, but its only emissions will be steam and condensed water. That’s good news for air pollution as well as the climate. As an added bonus, it’s really quiet.

The train was announced last year, and ran its first test runs a couple of weeks ago. There’s a lot more testing to do, and if successful, it will debut on the German network in 2018.

It looks like Alstom, a French company, will be the first to get a hydrogen train out onto the commercial network, but the technology itself isn’t entirely new. The first prototypes were built in Japan ten years ago, and there are research projects in Britain, South Africa, Denmark and a number of others. Japan and the US have also experimented with hybrid locomotives. The first hydrogen tram was unveiled in China in 2015. The hydrogen has to come from somewhere of course, and the infrastructure to provide it isn’t built yet. Nevertheless, we can expect to hear more about hydrogen fuel cells in the coming years.


  1. Might want to note that all forms of transportation, and most anything can be powered by hydrogen. Also that hydrogen should only be produced from water, not natural gas or the like. Small reactors could easily produce enough for whole planet.

  2. This looks like a good idea but probably is not. It is also bad economics – these trains cannot cost under £2 million per vehicle, probably nearer £3 when all the R&D costs are factored in.

    Whether hydrogen is zero emission or not depends on how the electricity used to make the hydrogen is generated. There are also energy-efficiency questions which need to be considered. There is an immediate loss, the size of which depends on how the electricity used to make the hydrogen is generated. There is a further loss when energy is converted into hydrogen and back again into electricity in the vehicle, and then there are the usual losses associated with the drive transmission and control systems.

    Nor is that the end of the energy losses. There are also losses associated with the transport of the hydrogen, which is not a portable fuel. It has to be compressed and put in tanks. It will liquify only at extremely low temperatures. What is the overall thermal efficiency when all of this is taken into account?

    Then there is the platinum issue. Fuel cells require expensive platinum catalysts. Alternatives are not even on the horizon. Platinum mines are not environmentally friendly. Taking one thing with another, this is nothing like as clean as it appears on the surface.

    The Germans have a lot of 1960s diesel locomotives and carriages which are due to go for scrap. The locomotives could be fitted with modern low emission engines, as was done with the UK’s Inter City 125 trains. That would avoid wasting the embodied energy in the existing rolling stock, which is considerable. It would also save a substantial amount of money – refurbishment of a carriage to a high standard costs about £500k, and of a locomotive about £.1.5 million.

    Alternatively, existing carriages could be used in push-pull mode with steam locomotives burning biowaste (cost about £1.5 million per unit in series production), which are no less efficient overall than a diesel, are carbon-neutral and produce clean exhausts due to the good control of the combustion process now possible with external combustion.

    1. Contrary to your comment almost all biowaste collected is treated either by composting or by anaerobic digestion (AD). Both treatments result in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The most common method of hydrogen production involves steam reforming of methane (from natural gas). Steam reforming converts methane (and other hydrocarbons in natural gas) into hydrogen and carbon monoxide by reaction with steam over a nickel catalyst. Other methods include thermal water splitting, which uses a very high temperature (approximately 1000°C) to split water. Gasification, which uses heat to break down biomass or coal into a gas from which pure hydrogen can be generated. Unfortunately hydrogen production is neither clean nor inexpensive but here’s hoping.

      1. Solid biowaste can just be dried and burned directly and used as fuel, eg for space heating or steam production – in the latter case it can be used inexpensively as a transport prime-mover fuel.

        As far as I can make out, the German situation is that wind generation has been installed which produces electricity at times when it is not wanted, so the idea is to use it up for hydrogen production, and in turn to use this hydrogen as a fuel for a very expensive train.

        However, a more effective use for this pure hydrogen would be as chemical feedstock.

    2. You beat me to it. Hydrogen is, as you say, nothing like the hype.

      over the last century, German railways ran several battery electric railcars, which were quite succesful. The size of a railcar means that you can store batteries in them, and perfprmance was pretty good. Not stratospheric, but enough for the rural branch lines this unit is designed for. Why they don’t use this proven technology again I’m npt sure. Possibly because it doesn’t grab headlines…

  3. well, using hydrogen as a fuel is a good idea because its cheap and also eco-friendly but again handling hydrogen is a big issue because it can cause massive explosions when subjected to little variations in pressure and temperature.
    scientists are still working behind this idea of using hydrogen as a fuel and let me tell y’all that they are still not successful in developing efficient and completely safe way of handling hydrogen.
    by taking above points into consideration hydrogen fuel powered trains are not reality at least in present days.

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