Can Hydrogen Carry the Freight (and Commuters)?

One of the things that people probably don’t think too much about is the extent of the U.S. freight rail network: approximately 140,000 miles of track, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Also according to the US DOT, as of 2016 (its most recent number) there were 26,716 Class 1 freight locomotives hauling 315,227 Class 1 freight cars. And Amtrak had 434 locomotives and 1,402 cars.

As for transit rail, 7,190 vehicles for commuter rail, 10,775 for heavy rail, and 2,553 for light rail.

All of which is to say that there are a lot of goods and people being transported by rail.

2021 Toyota Mirai. It is powered by hydrogen. Can trains be, too? (Image: Toyota)

So it was interesting to note that two firms have announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding in which NextGenPropulsion (NGP) is going to be purchasing solid-oxide fuel cell (SOFC) systems from Fuel Cell Enabling Technologies (FCET), which developed the system.

Odd are you have not heard of NGP or FCET. We hadn’t.

But it is interesting to know that on the NGP team there are people who had worked with people at the University of Birmingham and the University of Warwick in the U.K.—and as you may recall, the steam locomotive had its start in the U.K., as George Stephenson is credited with developing the world’s first successful locomotive. Apparently there are prototype hydrogen-powered trains on the rails in the U.K.

However, those locomotives are using PEM fuel cells and the NGP tech is SOFC, which, according to Dr. Keith Baarson, a founder and a chief engineer of NGP, says represents “a high-efficiency ell at a price point that will make the commercialization of hydrogen-powered rail not only a possibility, but an obvious replacement for current, century-old technology.”

Sure, fuel-cell powered Toyota Mirais and Hyundai Nexos may be sexier, but things like this is where there can be return-on-investment for users, so it is undoubtedly an area where hydrogen is going to achieve a significant presence.

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