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 how 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 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 approx.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.

Franklin Chang Diaz – My View from the Top

Franklin Chang Diaz - Cummins Inc.
Pictured: Franklin Chang Diaz, former NASA astronaut and current chairman and CEO of Ad Astra Rocket Company and board member of Cummins Inc.

When seeing the Earth from space, you experience many conflicting emotions. At once, it’s a feeling of both power and helplessness. From the window of a spacecraft, you can see the beauty of the Earth, humanity’s spacecraft, our only home — but you can also see how it’s changed over time. 

Former astronauts like myself often return from space with a renewed instinct to protect our planet. That’s why, as a Cummins board member, I’m passionate about the company’s venture into hydrogen fuel cells. 

Watch: Learn more about Dr. Chang Diaz’s view from the top. 

 

In my 25 years as an astronaut, I traveled on seven missions to space. The time I spent watching and observing the Earth and its changes has had a profound effect on my sense of responsibility for helping the planet. To see home while being so far from home is the most beautiful thing — but it’s deceiving to see this beautiful planet and realize all the turmoil that’s happening on the surface. 

Over the course of two decades, I saw how the Earth has changed. I saw the cutting of the rain forest in the Amazon basin, fires raging in Africa and the contamination of our oceans and air. We are a species with no redundancy, so if something happens to our planet, we become a history that no one can tell. It’s quite a sobering thought. 

As the world looks to decarbonize, Cummins, as a global power leader, is stepping up to the plate and investing in clean forms of energy, including fuel cells and hydrogen production technologies. 

Hydrogen fuel cells have been used for decades in spacecraft. A shuttle in space is actually an electric vehicle, and that electricity is produced in a fuel cell by hydrogen and oxygen. As a byproduct, fuel cells also produce large quantities of pure and clean water. This is the water we drank in space – think of the possibilities! Now, that technology has matured and we’re ready to use it to power the things we do every day, like transit, shipping, package delivery, buildings, homes, and even construction. 

Even with the many applications Cummins is exploring, we’ve just barely scratched the surface of the possibilities we can achieve with this promising technology. I envision hydrogen being involved in all power and energy purposes on Earth, including cars, trains, ships, airplanes and spacecraft. It can be a means of energy storage in locations like the moon, in the mining of asteroids and on the surface of Mars. In stationary applications, it can power buildings and data centers. It’s not an overstatement to say that hydrogen as a power source will transform life on Earth as we know it. 

As a Cummins board member, part of my responsibilities includes thinking about the long-term future of the company. Where is the company going? Where is Cummins going to be after another 100 years? While it’s hard to tell the future, I believe we can help shape it, I know that Cummins is very well positioned to take advantage of this opportunity with hydrogen technologies, a global footprint today and a planetary footprint tomorrow. 

Franklin Chang Diaz - Cummins Inc.

Franklin Chang Diaz

Franklin Chang Díaz is on the board of directors at Cummins Inc. As a board member, he is focused on representing and protecting the interests of shareholders and positioning Cummins for the future. Prior to Cummins, Díaz spent 25 years working at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), manning their shuttles and working to build the International Space Station. He also served as the director of the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center, part of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center, for 12 years. Díaz is currently the chairman and CEO of Ad Astra Rocket Company, a U.S. spaceflight engineering company based in Houston, Texas.

Five key questions about the next frontier: Hydrogen fuel cells

Five questions about hydrogen answered

You have questions about fuel cell technology and we have answers. 

Fuel cell technologies have grabbed headlines lately, and rightly so. If sourced from renewable means, an element such as hydrogen can be a zero-emission, extremely efficient fuel source capable of powering anything from vehicles to data centers. So, what are fuel cells and how do they work? Here are the answers to five key questions in honor of National Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Day. 

What are fuel cells? 

A fuel cell utilizes the chemical energy of hydrogen, natural gas or other hydrocarbon fuels to generate electricity. Unlike a battery, a fuel cell system does not store energy. Instead, it relies on a constant supply of fuel and oxygen in the same way that an internal combustion engine relies on a constant supply of gasoline or diesel and oxygen. A Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cell (PEM or PEMFC), also known as a hydrogen fuel cell, uses hydrogen exclusively as the fuel.

In the case of hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV), hydrogen is typically compressed and stored in tanks that are attached to the vehicle. Fuel cells are used to complement electric batteries as part of an FCEV powertrain, enabling several operating strategies for the user that offer flexibility in choice of energy (hydrogen, battery or an optimized  combination) based on price of the desired fuel source – electricity or hydrogen, and tailored to each application.

How do hydrogen fuel cells work? 

The basic structure of a fuel cell consists of two electrodes (a negative and a positive) separated by an electrolyte. Each fuel cell is only a few millimeters thick and hundreds of them are stacked together to build a fuel cell stack. 

Cummins - Hydrogen Fuel Cell - How does it work?

The supply of fuel, which is hydrogen in the case of hydrogen fuel cells, comes from a tank attached to the vehicle. The fuel is fed into the anode (the negative electrode) while oxygen from the atmosphere is introduced to the cathode (the positive electrode). Different fuel cell types exist and they each use a different process to create electricity, but for the most part a catalyst is introduced between the electrodes, which causes electrons to travel through an external circuit which is how electricity is created. 

In FCEV powertrains, the electricity produced from the fuel cell can be used to power an electric motor to produce mechanical power, to power accessories and to charge the high voltage battery packs as needed. In the case of a hydrogen-powered fuel cell, the byproduct of this chemical reaction is water and heat. 

What are the benefits of hydrogen fuel cell technology?

Today, compared to electric batteries, fuel cell powertrains would have a higher energy density and are quicker to refuel, making them more suitable for applications with longer daily ranges that cannot be accomplished by batteries alone. 

Analyses indicate, for example, that PEM fuel cells could be a viable solution for medium to long haul trucks, while battery only vehicles may be more suitable for short haul vehicles. Currently, the battery capacity needed for the range requirements of long-haul, and the resulting weight from the batteries, is prohibitive for trucks that need to reserve that weight for their load. Because fuel cells have higher energy density and lessen the battery capacity needed, it can create significant improvements in tractor weight while still providing adequate range. And when vehicles do need to refuel, for the near future hydrogen refueling is much quicker compared to recharging batteries despite evolving recharging technologies. Fuel cells also offer great flexibility due to their modular design: fuel cell systems and storage tanks can be tailored to meet the needs of different applications across different markets. 

Lastly, and very importantly, hydrogen can be sourced from water using a process called electrolysis, which uses electricity to separate a water molecule into hydrogen and oxygen. Thus, fuel cells can be a decarbonized source of energy. 

What are the current challenges to hydrogen fuel cell adoption?

Fuel cell technology is very promising, but like battery electric vehicles, there are many factors that influence adoption. Emissions regulations, financial incentives, technology development, infrastructure and total cost of ownership (TCO) will all be key in driving the adoption of fuel cell-powered vehicles. 

Currently, fuel cell technology is still developing which means there is limited real-world testing and limited investment in infrastructure, like hydrogen fueling stations. Customers are also faced with a higher upfront vehicle cost with payback largely dependent on the price of fuel. Fuel cell electric vehicles do offer flexibility allowing customers the option to refuel with hydrogen or recharge with electricity depending on which provides the best value, but long-term savings on those operating costs will be directly connected to the price of hydrogen. While some experts project hydrogen prices to fall, the initial investment for operators is likely to remain quite high compared to other technologies in the near-term.

In addition to financial factors, these systems, as compared to the incumbent fossil fuel solutions are also presently challenged by increased weight, reduced power density, and increased refueling time. While the latter is currently superior to battery charging solutions, it is still a challenge when compared to traditional liquid fuel refill times for similar amounts of fuel energy. The industry continues to work actively to address these challenges.

How is Cummins involved in hydrogen fuel cell technology?

Cummins hydrogen fuel cell technology is rooted in years of research, development, and strategic partnerships. In 2014, Cummins joined a pilot project to explore the development of the first hydrogen-fueled transportation system in Costa Rica. Then in 2018, the company joined the Hydrogen Council, a global coalition that explores and promotes hydrogen as a clean energy fuel source. 

In September of 2019, Cummins announced the acquisition of fuel cell and hydrogen production technologies provider Hydrogenics Corporation, headquartered in Mississauga, Canada. As one of the world’s premier fuel cell and hydrogen production technologies providers, Hydrogenics’ expertise and innovative approach represents another step forward as Cummins continues to provide a broad range of clean, fuel-efficient and high-performing products. The acquisition of Hydrogenics was shortly followed by an announcement that the company has entered into a memorandum of understanding with Hyundai Motor Company to jointly evaluate opportunities to develop and commercialize electric and fuel cell powertrains.  

From clean diesel, natural gas, battery electric and now fuel cells, Cummins is committed to innovating and delivering a variety of power solutions to meet the needs of customers. Continued development of hydrogen fuel cell technologies is part of Cummins commitment to deliver market-leading solutions that power customer success, now and for the next 100 years. 

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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