Thinking Tech

World's first hydrogen fuel cell locomotive

World's first hydrogen fuel cell locomotive

Posting in Technology

Okay, so you don't believe in the economics or technology behind hydrogen fuel cells for transportation. Well, the railroads known for conservatism and penny pinching do. by John Dodge

Okay, so you don't believe in the economics or technology behind hydrogen fuel cells for transportation.  Well, the railroads known for conservatism and penny pinching do.

In late June, Vehicle Projects Inc. of Denver working with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) rolled out an experimental  hydrogen fuel cell switching locomotive in Topeka that can generate up to 2,000 horsepower, according to TRAINS magazine. It's believed to be the first in the world. BNSF and the Dept. of the Army jointly funded the project starting early last year.  The concept grew out of discussions about how to get trains into disaster areas following Hurricane Katrina.

A tanktainer next to a common freight container

The unit is equipped with two 125 kilowatt fuel cells stacks built by Ballard Power Systems and can operate between 8-24 hours between fuelings. The only exhaust as with all hydrogen fuel cells is water vapor. Plans call for testing at DOT's Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, Colo. and then realword service in the Los Angeles Basin freight yards, according to BNSF.

Unfortunately, little was said about where the hydrogen will come from which always brings out the hydrogen cynics. Check out the comments to the coverage of the Topeka Capital Journal. Fact is hydrogen is a byproduct from gasoline refining and the manufacture of chemicals so it is both plentiful and cheap (there is a carbon cost, though). Then again, Kansas is oil country and hydrogen constitutes a potential threat to petroleum in the long term.

Just water vapor for emissions credit: Topeka Capital Journal

What's more, the railroads carry liquid hydrogen in tank cars and "tanktainers" which are removeable containers carried aboard a flat car. That gives the railroads  experience with handling and storage which are two key issues with hydrogen with respect to refueling and distribution.

Kansas Senator and former presidential candidate Sam Brownback (see video below) acknowledged that the fueling issue with hydrogen is more "readily solvable" with trains more than with autos given the railroads' fixed infrastructure. BNSF, he said, also wants to wean itself off diesel fuel given it uses five per cent of the nation's supply every year.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure