Hydrogen trains are now a reality. With the main goal to fight climate change, one state in Germany is rolling out a fleet of passenger trains powered entirely by hydrogen.
Five of these “zero-emissions” trains began running late last month in Lower Saxony, a state in the northern part of the country. Once all 14 of the new hydrogen trains are in service, the line will become the first route to run exclusively on H2, according to a statement from Alstom, the France-based company that developed the trains.
The high-tech trains, called Coradia iLint, combine hydrogen with oxygen to produce power. The byproducts are only steam and water, and any heat created gets recycled and used to power the trains’ air conditioning systems.
They’re expected to keep some 4,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere each year.
The German government has been supporting the expansion of H2’s use as an important component of its decarbonization strategy and to enjoy other benefits to replacing fossil fuels. State Governor Stephan Weil stated that the €93 million project was an “excellent example” to decarbonize Lower Saxony.
The locomotives were manufactured by Alstom, a company from France. Moreover, they will be operated by LNVG, a regional rail company in Germany. They will serve Buxtehude, Bremervoerde, Bremerhaven and Cuxhaven.
Developers say the new hydrogen trains are quiet, and they make the air cleaner for passengers to breathe. “It’s less noisy,” says Bruno Marguet, an executive with Alstom, to Fast Company’s Adele Peters. “You don’t smell the diesel smoke when you’re in the station… there aren’t diesel emissions from [nitrogen oxides], which are harmful for health.”
The hydrogen trains can travel 1,000 kilometers on a single tank of hydrogen. And when they need to refuel, they’ll do so at a hydrogen filling station that crews built along the tracks. They can run at speeds of up to 140 km per hour, but they typically stay between 80 and 120 km per hour on this route.
Diesel-powered trains account for roughly 20 percent of all train journeys in Germany, and eventually, the country wants to replace 2,500 to 3,000 of its trains with hydrogen-powered alternatives.
Hydrogen isn’t a fix-all, however. Though it’s the most abundant element in the universe, hydrogen must be separated from other elements to be used to produce energy. Extraction typically involves non-renewable resources—namely, natural gas and fossil fuel-powered electricity—and some of the hydrogen used to power Germany’s new trains is produced with fossil fuels.