Hot on the heels of commercial aviation, Britain's rail industry has hailed planned trials of a hydrogen-powered train as "welcome news".
Converted out of a 1980s electric train that was displaced from the unloved Bedpan line's* rolling stock, the Hydroflex train ignores its 25kV overhead electrical wire pickup in favour of an onboard hydrogen fuel cell and battery pack, as owners Porterbrook explained on their website.
The proof-of-concept train has now been driven at speeds of "up to 50mph" around Warwickshire, according to the BBC.
David Clarke, technical director of the Railway Industry Association trade body, said in a canned statement today: "It is welcome news that the UK is undertaking mainline testing of a hydrogen train and announcing a Hydrogen Transport Hub in the Tees Valley. The introduction of fleets of low-carbon, self-powered trains, alongside a rolling programme of electrification, can help ensure rail leads the country's decarbonisation revolution, generating jobs and investment in the process."
Current hydrogen production methods are largely reliant on electricity from non-low-carbon sources, as the International Energy Agency regretfully noted in its June 2020 report on hydrogen fuels, stating that "low-carbon production capacity remained relatively constant and is still off track" compared to its Sustainable Development Scenario goals.
A railway industry magazine reported last year that the testbed train carries 20kg of hydrogen in four onboard tanks that hold the gas at around 8.5 bar. A fuel cell converts the hydrogen into "pure water and electricity", with the electricity being used to power the train's existing traction motors.
The main advantage of hydrogen power is that harmful emissions are largely confined to the immediate area where the hydrogen is produced and captured, with those emissions being proportionately less than for refining crude oil into diesel and then burning that in a local engine.
The Department for Transport intends to turn the Tees Valley area into a "hub" for hydrogen-powered experiments, in the hope that "green hydrogen could power buses, HGV, rail, maritime and aviation transport across the UK".
Britain is not alone. EU aeroplane builder Airbus recently ditched a partnership with Rolls-Royce on electric aeroplanes to focus on hydrogen power, while back in the tech world Microsoft ran a handful of data centre racks on hydrogen fuel cells for 48 hours as a proof-of-concept test for replacing diesel-fuelled UPS generators. Redmond intends to extend that to a 3MW rig, potentially allowing an entire (albeit small) DC to be powered by hydrogen.
The future may lie in hydrogen technology replacing oil power. If so, the UK hopes to be among the leaders in it. ®
*The BEDford-St PANcras line, running between Bedfordshire and north London, later morphed into Thameslink after the reopening of a disused tunnel under the central London river. This let trains travel from north of the capital to the south coast.