UK’s First ‘Hydrogen Train’: A Sign Of Its Commitment To Decarbonization

HydroFLEX takes after Germany's Coradia iLint, the world's first hydrogen-powered train. Photo: Linus Follert | Flickr.com | CC BY-SA 2.0

In recent years, climate change has become more evident. Reports on unusual heat waves and rapid melting of global ice have been correlated to direct effects of global warming. 

Concerned citizens call for everyone’s support to reuse, reduce, and recycle; now more than ever. In the UK, the government is working on lowering diesel transportation in the hopes of completely removing them by 2040. This move includes replacing diesel-engine trains with eco-friendly ones.

Today, Porterbrook and University of Birmingham confirmed that the first hydrogen train would do a test run on UK’s mainline railway. Porterbrook, one of the three major rolling stock operating company in the UK, has teamed up with University of Birmingham’s Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) to produce HydroFLEX in September 2018.

HydroFLEX uses a “Class 319” electric engine that was modified to receive hydrogen as an additional energy source. Yes, this means that the HydroFLEX can still run on electric railways. 

Mary Grant, Porterbrook CEO, is incredibly proud to be part of this important project. “This is a[sic] first test, but we are excited about being in a position to provide HydroFLEX as a viable offering very soon,” said Grant.

Alex Burrows, Director at Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education, emphasized supporting the government’s goal to reduce dependency on diesel. “This is a great success story for the UK Rail Industry, which shows our capability and commitment to helping the government meet decarbonisation targets,” Burrows said.

How do hydrogen trains work?

There are four components to a hydrogen-powered train. There are hydrogen storage tanks, fuel cell converter, lithium batteries, and the electric motor. 

HydroFLEX houses the hydrogen in four fuel storage tanks. Through a network of pipes, the hydrogen is carried to a fuel cell converter. In the converter, the hydrogen and oxygen turns into water and electricity. It is then carried to two lithium batteries for storage. When the train is in motion, the electric motor gets energy from the batteries.

The two lithium battery storage is key in saving electricity. In theory, even if HydroFLEX can run on electricity, with the batteries, there is less need to consume electricity from the railways.

This kind of design is deemed an almost zero-emission train. No amount of the hydrogen is spilled and no harmful by-product is created from the energy conversion. According to BBC News, the HydroFLEX’s exhaust emits water that has no smell, whatsoever. 

With the continuous study and improvement of the hydrogen train, the UK hopes to provide more accessibility to public transportation thereby, lessening personal car usage that contributes to pollution.

Why is diesel being replaced? 

In 2014, reports show that diesel’s nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions led to increase in air pollution. Studies show that nitrogen dioxide can cause inflammation in the airways that can be associated to heart and lung diseases and respiratory illness such as asthma. 

Aside from its negative effects in one’s health, diesel-engine vehicles contribute carbon dioxide which indirectly causes global warming.

What are alternatives to diesel?

First to replace diesel as a primary fuel source is the gasoline. However, gasoline’s carbon dioxide emissions also caused substantial adverse effects on the environment. Another issue with gas is its production. Oil spills from poor management of oil mining sites caused irreparable damage to the environment.

Next solution was to use electricity. Although most of it comes from gasoline, multiple countries and companies have invested in renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy. 

Since 2010, the UK has switched to electric railways with 36% of the entire network done by 2018. 70% of their trains use electric-powered engines, and 6% have electro-diesel hybrid engines. The remaining 24% of the UK’s trains are still using diesel engines.

Now, more and more countries are finding ways to replace diesel and gasoline. In 2018, Germany showed the world the first hydrogen train with a travel speed of 140 kilometers per hour.

Which countries are also looking for alternative fuels for their vehicles?

Aside from the UK and Germany, other countries are looking into alternative fuel sources.

China is investing on electrified vehicles, like electric cars and plug-in hybrids, to completely ban gasoline and diesel vehicles. France has started banning gasoline and diesel vehicles. By 2040, car companies can no longer sell cars with diesel and gasoline engines in the country. Due to its heavy air pollution, India is following suit and aims to only have electricity-powered vehicles by 2030.

Other countries like Japan, Denmark, Austria, Portugal, Kenya, Spain, Korea, and Ireland promotes the use of electric cats by setting targets for its electric car sales.

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