Will the “trains on hydrogen” to deliver us from diesel fuel?

When the UK government cancelled its plans for electrification of rail lines running through Wales, the Midlands and the North of England, and reduced the electrification of the railway network of Great Western, this led to premature termination of the investment programme in the Railways, which was considered one of the largest in the country since the Victorian era. But now the government and train manufacturers hope that an alternative for the electrification of British Railways can be hydrogen.

Train on hydrogen

Hydrogen trains have already replaced more dirty diesel engines in Germany, and some rail companies believe the UK will follow suit in 2022. For the introduction of new technologies still need investment. But they can be an important step towards reducing the carbon footprint of the Railways.

Currently, only a third electrified rail network of great Britain, and over the last few years it was converted a few additional ways. Stopping the electrification of the network, the government faces a dilemma: how to eliminate diesel trains, which produce carbon dioxide and other harmful pollutants?

The current strategy is to purchase a bimodal trains, which can switch to petrol fuel when out on the road without electricity. But this does not solve the problem as such.

If the electrification of the rest of the network seems too expensive, one possible alternative is the generation of electricity on Board the train. One way to do this is to use fuel cells, which combine hydrogen gas with oxygen from the air to produce electricity and water. Hydrogen can carry more energy than batteries with the same weight, which means that the fuel cell system can be easier. In addition, they require less time to refuel than battery charging, and do not have the same high environmental costs in production.

Hydrogen gas must be compressed in tanks that are usually located on the roof of the train. But the addition of the regenerative braking system to charge a battery will reduce the amount of hydrogen needed to power the train.

The high cost of installing overhead wires means that hydrogen trains are likely to be more cost-effective way to electrify railway lines with relatively little traffic. It is also reasonable to experiment with hydrogen trains to identify any unexpected problems. However, widespread use will require significant investment in production and storage of hydrogen. As for the hydrogen basis was built very few Railways, it is unclear whether they will be able to save money by eliminating electrification of major lines whether to run the economy of scale.

The best solution may be to develop a hybrid dual-mode trains which can switch between electricity from overhead wires, and fuel cells. It is better suited for rail networks that run through the bridges and tunnels.

Another problem with hydrogen fuel cells, is that now the fuel is made from methane (natural gas) using a process called steam reforming of methane, which also gives a great output of highly toxic carbon monoxide. You can convert it to carbon dioxide, however, in this case hydrogen fuel will still contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

Pure hydrogen

Environmentally friendly method of producing hydrogen is through electrolysis, when water is passed through an electric current. Theoretically, you can use the excess energy of wind (and possibly sun) to produce this electricity and make the hydrogen a renewable energy source. The problem is that electrolysis installations are unlikely to be economical if will not work most of the day. This will mean that when there is an excess of wind for their power, they will require regular electricity from the network, which makes the process very expensive (and not necessarily renewable).

A second alternative is the use of “thermo-chemical” method of production, which includes the interaction of water with sulphur and iodine in the presence of heat. The good news is that this method will become economical within the next decade, thanks to the development of nuclear power plants generation IV. These high temperature small modular reactors being developed in China, USA, Canada and Japan, but not in the UK or Europe.

Despite all the limitations of using hydrogen as a transport fuel as more and more countries (particularly, Japan) conducted further research in the area of hydrogen economy, the cost will be reduced. Even hydrogen can replace natural gas in the main gas pipes that will also help to reduce the cost of its use for transport.

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