Making hydrogen work for railway transport

The market is ready for a standard on hydrogen propelled railway systems and the IEC is working to meet that demand.

A hydrogen powered train in Austria (copyright: Alstom)

Using hydrogen to power vehicles is not a new technology: in the 1960s, it was used to propel rockets into space and even land on the moon. But as the contemporary world increasingly worries about CO2 emissions and climate change, hydrogen is gaining new momentum. One of the EU governing bodies, the European Council adopted a series of decisions entitled towards a hydrogen market for Europe", signed by all EU members. Several prototype hydrogen trains are running in Germany and elsewhere in the world. Japanese and Korean car makers have championed fuel cells for road vehicles. In China, tramways are running propelled by hydrogen and so are buses in many countries.

Hydrogen is combined with oxygen in a fuel cell, producing electricity, which then is used to give motion to various means of transport. The vehicles release water vapour instead of polluting CO2 emissions and other noxious substances emitted by fuel-powered devices. There are various ways of sourcing hydrogen, some cleaner than others. The chemical substance can be generated from natural gas and biomass, but also from oil and coal. Hydrogen can also be produced using electricity generated by nuclear or renewable energies such as solar, wind or hydro power, without generating any CO2 emissions.

IEC is paving the way for this form of energy to be widely used for transport. IEC Technical Committee 9 which prepares standards for railway equipment and systems, has recently embarked on the development of a new standard, IEC 63341-1, specifying fuel cells for the propulsion of trains as well as any rolling stock type of transport, including light rail vehicles, tramways and metros.

e-tech catches up with the IEC Convenor leading this project, Julien D’Arbigny.

What are the reasons for this new IEC Standard project?

A first generation of hydrogen-powered trains already run with fuel cells, notably in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands, where they have been used to transport passengers for the last three years. Other hydrogen trains are planned in several countries around the world. The markets are already there. However, we have no standards relevant to the integration of fuel cells into railway systems for traction. We therefore formed an IEC project team, which includes a varied mix of representatives from France, Germany, the UK, Switzerland, South Korea, Japan and China. They also come from different horizons and include fuel cell manufacturers, train operators like the SNCF in France, as well as train equipment suppliers and makers. We want to try and specify standardized ways of integrating fuels cells on board trains. Other countries wanting to take part in our group are welcome: we are expecting participation from North America soon.

Can you tell me more about the requirements you will need to look at in the standard?

We are focusing on the definition of the interface as well as the description of environmental conditions, for instance temperature and humidity levels, shock, vibration and noise. We will also describe the design requirements to ensure that the fuel cell system complies with railway applications. Other sections of the standards will address the safety, reliability and protection requirements needed for designing and installing the fuel cell system, as well as the validation process for these requirements.

I thought that fuel cell trains were noise-free?

Converting hydrogen and oxygen to electricity is a totally silent process. But in order to produce the air required for supplying oxygen to the fuel cell, you need a compressor which can be a source of noise and a fan, to dissipate the heat produced by the fuel cell, which can also be noisy.

Would you agree that in addition to the new momentum for hydrogen, trains are really gaining ground as one of the more sustainable forms of transport of the 21st century?

Yes. Trains are an extremely energy efficient mode of transport. They consume little energy per head and per kilometre, especially when compared to other forms of transportation such as aircraft or cars. Hydrogen-running trains will be even more sustainable, especially if hydrogen is generated by clean forms of energy.

How do fuel cells compare to lithium-ion or other batteries as a green way of powering trains?

The company I work for views both as key technologies to be used for sustainable trains. The two technologies are complementary. Fuel cells offer trains more autonomy, enabling them to travel over longer distances. But batteries will be used for trains over shorter distances and can be combined with fuel cells for hybrid solutions. Batteries also enable trains to recover energy from the braking process and store it.

The greenest option of all is using hydrogen which is produced by renewable energies instead of fossil fuels. Will the standard plan ahead for that?

The standard is expected to have two parts. The first one will focus exclusively on integrating fuel cell technology on board trains. A second part will specifically focus on hydrogen storage in the vehicles. Another working group inside TC 9 is focusing on that topic. The way of generating hydrogen will not be addressed in either part.

What is the timing for this standard?

We expect to have a first Committee Draft ready by the summer.