Hydrogen trains on the right track

Together with Linde, the federal state of Lower Saxony is taking important steps to spread hydrogen mobility on railroad tracks.

In its blue varnish, the Coradia iLint glides along Germany’s northern coastline like a fish in deep waters, passing idyllic meadows as it travels from Buxtehude to Bremerhaven and on to Cuxhaven. If it wasn’t for the metal wheels swooshing along the iron tracks, Alstom’s new railcar would be moving silently, now that its growling diesel engine has been replaced with a fuel cell and two tanks holding 260 kilograms of hydrogen.

Ahead of the regular service, Alstom and the local transport authority Landesnahverkehrsgesellschaft Niedersachsen (LNVG) began operating two iLints in spring 2018 for a two-year testing period to acquaint both passengers and personnel with the new emission-free technology.

“As of 2021, Germany’s first hydrogen powered train is scheduled to operate on the route between Buxtehude and Cuxhaven,” says Thomas Tork, an engineer by training and a member of Linde’s business development team. While hydrogen is ideally positioned to replace emission-rich fossil fuels and provide a clean energy carrier for modern mobility, it is still under-used in Germany and many other countries.

Together with Linde and Alstom, the French rail mobility group, the federal state of Lower Saxony is now taking important steps towards hydrogen mobility. By April 2021, all trains on the 123-kilometre-long route will be powered by the most abundant element in the universe. Linde’s specialised unit Hydrogen FuelTech provides the technology and expertise for the fuelling station that is to be built over the coming two years while another Linde team provides the hydrogen supply of up to 1,800 kilograms per day.

Minus 11,000 tons of CO2

A mobile refuelling station will service the trains in Bremervörde in the early years of the project.

With zero direct emissions, hydrogen plays a crucial role in Germany’s efforts to reduce the harmful emissions of conventional combustion engines. Switching from diesel to hydrogen on this train route reduces yearly CO2 emissions by 11,000 tons, LNVG claims. The project receives financial support from a federal funding program. Convinced of the benefits and with decades of experience, Linde is keen to promote the widespread use of hydrogen across all forms of mobility, including cars, buses, trucks, ships and forklifts.

Providing state-of-the-art fuelling technology and a reliable hydrogen supply to all 14 LNVG trains 24 hours a day and 365 days a year is no small task. “This requires a strong corporation with reliable hydrogen sources and the logistical abilities to deliver it in all weathers,” Tork says. “Continuous operation and service to more than a dozen trains is significantly more challenging than providing hydrogen to the occasional car passing by.”

Despite – or rather because of – this challenge, Tork is excited to be part of this project. With an engineer’s enthusiasm and an economist’s thinking, Tork is keen to get this trendsetting technology on the ground and ready it for day-to-day operation. With their constant service, the 14 hydrogen trains will provide significantly more data than the average car, which is in motion for as little as 2,000 hours over its entire life cycle, Tork points out. “This is negligible compared to a near permanent train service. Operating a hydrogen-powered train under the strain of a daily schedule offers a glimpse into the future of hydrogen mobility. With the insights from this project, we hope to further improve our fuelling and storage technology.”

Under pressure

With two dispensers, engineered by Linde Hydrogen FuelTech, and a pressure of 350 bar, the fuelling station planned for this project will be able to refuel two trains per hour. The pressure in the storage tank will be at 500 bar to increase the tank’s capacity. In the early years of the project, hydrogen will be delivered by truck to the fuelling station near Bremervörde. Thanks to higher than usual pressure in the trucks’ tanks, the vehicles deliver three times as much hydrogen per load as usual. “With this and other benefits, hydrogen is on par with diesel when it comes to flexibility.”

Over the long run, Linde and its partners intend to produce “green” hydrogen for this project, that is hydrogen generated via renewable energy sources, thus also reducing indirect emissions. While a hydrogen vehicle causes zero local emissions thanks to fuel cell technology, electrolysis, the process that breaks up hydrogen compounds like water and methane, requires energy input. Creating this energy causes CO2 emissions if conventional sources are used. However, energy derived from renewable sources such as wind or solar power reduces a fuel cell vehicle’s overall emissions to next to zero.

“To get this project up and running, we initially deliver hydrogen to the refuelling station,” says Tork. “By 2024, however, we intend to replace one third of the hydrogen supply with on-site electrolysis supported by renewable energy from near-by wind parks.” The station should then also be ready to refuel public buses