On Track – Hydrogen Rail Freight in North America

Pilot projects for hydrogen-electric freight locomotives are piling up in North America after a relatively slow start compared with China and Europe.

Two Vancouver-based companies, hydrogen fuel cell firm Loop Energy and hydrogen storage provider Hydrogen-in-Motion (H2M), announced plans in early September to convert a diesel-electric switcher locomotive to hydrogen in conjunction with its owner, Southern Railway of BC, and the University of British Columbia Okanagan School of Engineering.

Switcher locomotives are used for short-haul purposes in railyards and ports, whereas line-haul locomotives tend to cover intercity routes.

“This is a monumental step in making zero-emission rail transport a reality” Rubin, Loop Energy

Upon successful demonstration of this retrofit, Southern Railway of BC is planning to roll out the hydrogen fuel cell system to the rest of its fleet. The consortium is also hoping to transfer the technology to other rail carriers, including Canadian Pacific and Canadian National, the country’s two Class 1 carriers.

“As a Vancouver-based company, we are passionate about joining forces with like-minded organisations on practical, sustainable mobility solutions in support of a clean energy future for the Canadian economy,” says George Rubin, chief commercial officer of Loop Energy. “This is a monumental step in making zero-emission rail transport a reality.”

Ironically, rail was not one of the transportation modes Loop Energy was planning to target when the 21-year old company successfully launched an IPO in February, Rubin tells Hydrogen Economist.

“H2M and Southern Railway of BC needed a fuel cell system for the project, and we all quickly came to realise the 50kW version of our fuel-efficient and power-dense eFlow system was a good fit for a hydrogen-electric switcher locomotive,” he says.

Opportunity knocks

Switcher locomotives represent a good opportunity for hydrogen fuel cell systems in the short term, according to Ben Chursinoff, a policy analyst with rail operator body the Railway Association of Canada.

“Switchers do not need nearly as much power as line-haul locomotives—which is a big plus as hydrogen technology develops—benefit from centralised fuelling infrastructure and help to overcome the environmental justice issue, with railyards located in economically disadvantaged areas,” he says.

In the longer term, hydrogen-electric line-haul locomotives have some distinct advantages, especially in North America.

“Compared with places like Europe, locomotives tend to travel longer distances and pull more cars, and population densities tend to be much lower,” Chursinoff says.

The population issue makes it cost-prohibitive to convert diesel-electric locomotives to direct electric power, while batteries continue to face range and recharging issues.

Other pilot projects

As a result, since the end of last year, at least three other North American pilot projects have been announced for hydrogen-electric locomotives—two line-haulers and one switcher.

23,000 – Freight locomotives operated by Wabtec

In mid-June, Pittsburgh-based Wabtec and US vehicle manufacturer General Motors announced a non-binding memorandum of understanding to develop locomotives for heavy-haul trains powered by the automaker’s Ultium electric battery and its Hydrotec hydrogen fuel cell system. Wabtec has a customer base of 23,000 freight locomotives around the world and is planning to replace them with cleaner engines over time.

In addition, Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems is supplying its FCMove heavy-duty fuel cell modules to California’s Sierra Northern Railway to help develop a hydrogen-electric switching locomotive, and to Calgary-based CP to help develop one for long-haul freight operations.

Source: Hydrogen Economist.

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