Power to passenger trains: How hydrogen can revolutionize railway operations in Europe

Alstom hydrogen-powered train
Copyright Alstom/Rene Frampe

Hydrogen fuel cells are recognized as one of the keys to a carbon-neutral future, and that future is now. 

Powering a passenger train with hydrogen. It sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, but in Europe, this is now a reality.

Cummins’ customers can depend on a range of technologies from diesel and natural gas, to fully electric and hydrogen solutions. As the demand for zero-emission transportation increases, alternative technologies continue to be the right solution for customers around the globe. Hydrogen fuel cells are recognized as one of the innovative solutions necessary for a carbon-neutral future, generating enough energy to power passenger trains.

The French railway manufacturer Alstom shows what the successful development of such a hydrogen train could look like. Alstom is among the first railway manufacturers in the world to develop a passenger train based on such a technology, with the first trains in regular service running in the northern German town of Bremervörde and now Austria. Cummins’ fuel cell and hydrogen technologies business, formerly known as Hydrogenics, supplied the necessary fuel cells. 

The start of the journey

In 2015, Hydrogenics—now part of Cummins—was selected as a key partner by Alstom to develop and implement hydrogen fuel cell systems for Alstom’s iLint, the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell train. The train was first previewed at the Innotrans exhibition in Berlin in 2016, with the first test drive taking place in Germany the following year. With a range of up to 1000 kilometers per each hydrogen tank fueling, the fuel cell train matches the miles per fueling performance of conventional regional trains, with lower environmental impact and lower noise levels while having a top speed of 140 kilometers per hour. 

Alstom hydrogen powered train
Copyright Alstom/Rene Frampe

Rather than using the overhead wiring, hydrogen fuel cell technology is an alternative approach to electrifying passenger trains using existing rail infrastructure. In this case, hydrogen fuel cell power modules on the top of the train car are at the heart of the system and provide sufficient energy by combining hydrogen and oxygen. The fuel cells work by extracting oxygen from the ambient air, while the storage tanks supply the hydrogen demand. The fuel cells and the hydrogen tanks are mounted on the roof of the train. When in motion, the fuel cell powered passenger train emits only water vapor, which is the only by-product of the hydrogen and oxygen reaction in the fuel cell, a truly clean energy conversion.

Since September 2018, two hydrogen fuel cell trains have been successfully used in commercial service in northern Germany, each of which is equipped with approximately 150 seats. Since the prosperous launch of the hydrogen fuel cell trains, increasingly more railway operators have expressed interest in the emission-free alternative. As a result, Alstom announced a trial in the Netherlands which will test further hydrogen powered trains in spring 2020. First serial production of 14 iLints, Alstom’s hydrogen powered train, will start operating in 2021 in Lower Saxony. Additionally, Alstom will supply 27 hydrogen trains until the end of 2022 for operations in the Rhine-Main region. There is interest from other German federal states and in other European countries to use the train for not electrified tracks. Offering this kind of mobility, the French manufacturer is a worldwide pioneer for fuel cell mobility in passenger trains and active promoter of sustainable mobility.

The future is now

“By providing hydrogen fuel cell solutions for powering passenger trains in Europe, we have proven our capabilities in this field and proven our ability to power our customer’s success. To meet changing regulatory standards and future environmental and energy goals, we understand that for us and our customers to be successful over the long-term we must have a broad product portfolio powered by multiple energy sources. Providing hydrogen fuel cell solutions is taking us one step further to meet the evolving needs of our customers,” said Amy Adams, Vice President – Fuel Cells & Hydrogen Technologies. 

Looking ahead, hydrogen continues to be a promising technology, enabling clean mobility for a more sustainable future.
 

Cummins Office Building

Cummins Inc.

Cummins is a global power leader that designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel and alternative fuel engines from 2.8 to 95 liters, diesel and alternative-fueled electrical generator sets from 2.5 to 3,500 kW, as well as related components and technology. Cummins serves its customers through its network of 600 company-owned and independent distributor facilities and more than 7,200 dealer locations in over 190 countries and territories.

Watch Now: How fuel cell electric vehicles are paving the road to zero

Cummins provides mobility solutions that allow customers to get from point A to Point B. But as the climate crisis continues and global companies pivot to adopt more sustainable practices, how do we help customers move people and things with minimum to zero air pollutants or greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions?

One solution is fuel cell electric vehicles.

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) use electricity to power an electric motor, similar to all-electric vehicles (EVs). The difference in FCEVs is that the electricity used to power the motor is produced using fuel cells powered by hydrogen. And unlike conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, FCEVs produce no harmful tailpipe emissions.

The key to FCEV success is hydrogen. When hydrogen is generated using renewable resources, such as solar and wind, it becomes a green energy source that can be used without the direct emissions of air pollutants.

Watch below to learn more about how Cummins fuel cell electric vehicles provide clean, zero-emissions transportation, from well to wheel.

Hydrogen plays an important role in Cummins’ mission to decarbonize the global economy. We continue to invest in the advancement of hydrogen and fuel cell technologies and infrastructure to ensure the production of hydrogen becomes more affordable and globally available.

With Cummins-powered FCEVs already on the road, we are well on our way toward Destination Zero.

Cummins Office Building

Cummins Inc.

Cummins is a global power leader that designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel and alternative fuel engines from 2.8 to 95 liters, diesel and alternative-fueled electrical generator sets from 2.5 to 3,500 kW, as well as related components and technology. Cummins serves its customers through its network of 600 company-owned and independent distributor facilities and more than 7,200 dealer locations in over 190 countries and territories.

Cummins New Power President emphasizes decarbonizing now at The New York Times Climate Hub

Cummins New Power President emphasizes decarbonizing now at The New York Times Climate Hub

Amy Davis, Vice President and President of New Power, painted a picture of a decarbonized transportation sector with the help of both battery electric and hydrogen-powered solutions at The New York Times Climate Hub in Glasgow, Scotland, earlier this month. And while the debate between various low- and zero-carbon solutions continues around the world, she urged governments and corporations to start doing something now – because the carbon you put out today, tomorrow and next week cannot be taken back.

Cummins is over 100 years old, and we’ve been powering all kinds of commercial applications. One of the things we know is that [transportation] is very diverse, and we believe it’s not going to take just one solution [to decarbonize it].” – Amy Davis, President of New Power

In parallel with the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, the Climate Hub hosted its program The Forum.  Over nine days, people across the globe tuned in to 45 live discussions, debates and workshops that addressed the mounting threat of climate change and what actions can be taken to stop it. 

Davis’ presence at The Forum was just one of numerous engagements and initiatives occurring in Glasgow that week. Cummins Chairman and CEO Tom Linebarger also attended COP26, meeting with governments, industry leaders and media to advocate for the shift from fossil fuels to low- and no-carbon solutions and demonstrating how Cummins will be part of the energy transition.

In the days leading to COP26 and The Forum, Cummins was accepted into two influential groups advocating for climate action

The consensus across conversations was that moving toward a carbon-free world is essential – but is it easier said than done? How do we make decarbonization happen? What does decarbonization even look like?

During the Transport and Mobility panel Time and Space: Moving People and Goods in a Carbon-Free World, Davis participated alongside Avinash Rugoobur, President of Arrival; Laura Lane, Chief Corporate Affairs Officer of UPS; and Peter Vanacker, President and CEO of Neste – all transportation and technology companies moving the industry toward a cleaner, greener future.

Watch the full discussion below as The New York Times climate reporter and panel moderator Brad Plumer opens the floor to Davis to discuss why Cummins is approaching decarbonization beyond just electrification, how infrastructure challenges have influenced hydrogen in mobility, and how transitionary periods lead to innovation in aftermarket solutions. 

Watch the full panel:

Cummins Office Building

Cummins Inc.

Cummins is a global power leader that designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel and alternative fuel engines from 2.8 to 95 liters, diesel and alternative-fueled electrical generator sets from 2.5 to 3,500 kW, as well as related components and technology. Cummins serves its customers through its network of 600 company-owned and independent distributor facilities and more than 7,200 dealer locations in over 190 countries and territories.

What is a fuel cell?

Fuel cells are a key technology to unlocking our carbon-neutral future

Fuel cells aren’t new. In fact, the first reference to hydrogen fuel cells appears in 1838 in the December issue of The London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science. Almost 200 years later, the world is recognizing fuel cells as a key technology to unlocking a carbon-neutral future.

Here is what they are, how they work and two fuel cell types that Cummins is investing in.

What is a fuel cell in simple terms?

Like batteries, fuel cells are energy converters – they use an electrochemical reaction to take the chemical energy stored in a fuel source and convert it to electricity. Unlike batteries, which contain a fixed supply of energy, fuel cells do not require recharging. As long as fuel is continuously supplied to the fuel cell, electricity, water and heat will be produced.

How does a fuel cell work?

A fuel cell is comprised of two electrodes and an electrolyte membrane. The electrodes are called a cathode and an anode, and they sandwich the electrolyte membrane between them. Within that system, a series of chemical reactions occur to separate the electrons from the fuel molecules to create energy.

The fuel, typically hydrogen, is fed into the anode on one side while oxygen is fed into the cathode on the other. At the anode, the hydrogen fuel molecules are separated into protons and electrons that will travel different paths toward the cathode. The electrons go through the electrical circuit, creating the flow of electricity. The protons travel through the electrolyte to the cathode. Once at the cathode, oxygen molecules react with the electrons and with the protons to create water molecules.

A fuel cell is a clean energy source with the only byproducts being electricity (power), heat and water. A single fuel cell alone only produces a few watts of power; therefore, several fuel cells can be stacked together to create a fuel cell stack. When combined in stacks, the fuel cells’ output can vary greatly, from just a few kilowatts of power to multi-megawatt installations.

What fuels can be used in fuel cells?

Fuel cells offer flexibility in the fuel type that can be used. While hydrogen is the most common fuel source for fuel cells (hence the common name, hydrogen fuel cells), hydrogen-rich fuels such as natural gas and ammonia are also viable fuel sources.

Hydrogen: When produced using renewable electricity – like solar, wind and hydropower – hydrogen is completely decarbonized and produces zero emissions. Hydrogen fuel cells (i.e. fuel cells that are fueled by hydrogen) produce power, heat and water and release no carbon dioxide or other pollutants into the air.

Natural gas: As widespread production of green hydrogen is still in progress, natural gas is currently the most-used fuel to power fuel cells. In this case the fuel cells are not completely emission-free, but they do offer significantly lower emissions than other fuels, like oil and coal.

Ammonia: Ammonia is most used in agriculture as fertilizer. However, in recent years, several companies have been working to develop green ammonia. Green ammonia is made with hydrogen that comes from water electrolysis powered by alternative energy, making it another option for a low-carbon fuel.

What types of fuel cells is Cummins investing in?

There are six types of fuel cells that are under development, each primarily classified by the kind of electrolyte they employ. Each type of fuel cell has its own advantages, limitations and potential applications. Out of the six, Cummins has recognized the potential in two types of fuel cells – proton exchange membrane fuel cells and solid oxide fuel cells - and has invested in the advancement of their technologies and their application.

Proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells: Also referred to as polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells, this type of fuel cell uses a polymer electrolyte and operates at lower temperatures of around 80 degrees Celsius. PEM fuel cells are more suitable for mobile and back-up power applications due to their high-power density and quick start-stop capabilities.

Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs): SOFCs use a hard, non-porous ceramic compound as their electrolyte and operate at high temperatures, as high as 1,000 degrees Celsius.  This type of fuel cell is most suitable for stationary applications because it is highly efficient and fuel flexible. In addition, waste heat may be harnessed and reused to increase the overall system efficiency.

Why invest in fuel cells?

Already leaders in PEM electrolyzers that produce green hydrogen through electrolysis, we are working on making green hydrogen more readily available for future use in fuel cells. Cummins was awarded a U.S. Department of Energy grant for the advancement of SOFCs and have seen our fuel cells successfully support the operation of battery electric vehicles.

Fuel cells may predate the beginning of Cummins, but we are wasting no time discovering how to advance their technology to create a zero-emission future.

Cummins Office Building

Cummins Inc.

Cummins is a global power leader that designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel and alternative fuel engines from 2.8 to 95 liters, diesel and alternative-fueled electrical generator sets from 2.5 to 3,500 kW, as well as related components and technology. Cummins serves its customers through its network of 600 company-owned and independent distributor facilities and more than 7,200 dealer locations in over 190 countries and territories.

Video Case Study: Cummins HyLYZER® PEM electrolyzer in Bécancour, Quebec

The Cummins HyLYZER in Bécancour, Quebec, Canada, is the largest proton exchange membrane (PEM) electrolyzer in operation in the world. A new video case study highlights the installation’s ground-breaking green hydrogen production capabilities, making it a beacon for a zero-carbon future.

Watch below: 

Commissioned in January and installed at the Air Liquide hydrogen production facility in Quebec, this 20-MW electrolyzer system features industry-leading technology, including four compact, pressurized HyLYZER electrolyzer skids fitted inside the existing building. The systems are modular and scalable, perfect for large-scale utility applications.

Through a phased ramp up, the Cummins HyLYZER system is now at full operation and can produce up to 8.2 tons of low-carbon hydrogen per day — or nearly 3,000 tons of hydrogen annually. It’s powered by the region’s electric grid, which is largely supplied by renewable hydro-electric power. This means the hydrogen produced at the plant is “green” and almost entirely carbon-free.

Through this green hydrogen production, the facility is preventing approximately 27,000 tons of CO2 emissions per year. This is equivalent to taking 10,000 fossil-fueled cars off the road.

Since its commissioning, the system in Bécancour has increased Air Liquide’s hydrogen production capacity by 50%, allowing them to respond to the growing demand for low-carbon fuel in the North American market for both industrial and mobility purposes.

Cummins Office Building

Cummins Inc.

Cummins is a global power leader that designs, manufactures, sells and services diesel and alternative fuel engines from 2.8 to 95 liters, diesel and alternative-fueled electrical generator sets from 2.5 to 3,500 kW, as well as related components and technology. Cummins serves its customers through its network of 600 company-owned and independent distributor facilities and more than 7,200 dealer locations in over 190 countries and territories.

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