Annie Grey investigates the proposed decarbonisation of the UK’s rail network and whether it truly can be emission-free
Photo by Alex Rainer
In light of the worsening climate crisis, demand for decarbonisation across transport industries has experienced rapid growth. But what has been done so far? Well, in 2016, Germany unveiled the Coradia iLint, the world’s first hydrogen-powered train, which can run for 600 miles on a single tank of fuel, similar to the range of diesel trains.
From this achievement, and thanks to engineers at both the University of Birmingham and British rail company Porterbrook, the UK has adopted a similar approach. The HydroFLEX, Britain’s first hydrogen-powered train, successfully launched at the Quinton Rail Technology Centre, a test facility in Long Marston, near Stratford-upon-Avon, earlier this year. The HydroFLEX’s hydrogen-power system produces enough power to fuel 50-75-mile-long journeys, a notable progression in the UK’s adoption of green technologies.
How Does it Work?
In order for the train to run on hydrogen fuel, it is equipped with fuel cells which produce electricity through a combination of hydrogen and oxygen, a process that leaves steam and water as the only emissions, effectively making it a ‘clean’ fuel. Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of domestic resources, such as natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and renewable power, making it an attractive fuel option for transportation. Excess energy is stored in ion lithium batteries on board the train.
The growth of global environmental governance, most notably the 2015 Paris Agreement, supports the case for adopting hydrogen as a clean and viable replacement for fossil fuels in transport, energy storage, and power-to-gas applications.
Is Hydrogen Power Truly ‘Clean’?
Even though the only direct waste product of hydrogen fuel is water, obtainwaing this form of power is not necessarily ‘clean’. Currently, hydrogen is produced as a by-product of chemical processes, which draws challenges in its promotion as a “sustainable replacement”. The cheapest and most common method of generation at present uses natural gas and high-temperature steam to produce hydrogen. The HydroFLEX train runs on hydrogen produced from a combination of hydrogen produced using natural gas, but its supplier, BOC, says it is looking into renewable options. In order for hydrogen power to be truly sustainable, other methods of production that don’t rely on fossil fuels would need to become mainstream.
The Future of Hydrogen
Aside from sustainability concerns in the hydrogen production process, a transition to a hydrogen-based society is going to prove difficult, as a large proportion of the public holds concern over hydrogen safety. A study from The World Economic Forum showed that only 49.5% of respondents believe that hydrogen is generally safe, whilst 31.4% viewed hydrogen as generally dangerous.
The public perceives hydrogen as highly flammable and explosive; whilst this is true, itu is actually much safer than most commonly-used fuels. Measured by percentage volume in air, hydrogen requires 4% to be flammable, compared to 0.6% for diesel fuel, and 1.4% for gasoline. In terms of auto-igniting temperature, hydrogen also comes out on top, as in the absence of a flame or spark, it only starts burning at 550°C, compared to diesel at 210°C and gasoline at 260°C.
According to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, The UK already has 42% of its route miles electrified, meaning those trains are ready to become zero-carbon if they use a renewable source of power. A single line running between London and Hampshire is currently the only one, globally, running solely on solar power. However, this leaves 58% of UK tracks not yet electrified, meaning diesel still needed to keep those areas connected by rail. Although electrifying tracks is already an established and accepted method of decarbonising the UK’s rail system, there are high costs involved. Electrifying a single kilometre of track can cost anything from £750,000 to £1 million. Hydrogen-powered trains are less expensive, as they don’t require large track overhauls and can be created by retrofitting existing diesel trains, reducing waste.
Public reliance on hydrogen technology will likely increase with the growth of the hydrogen generation market, expected to reach $199.1 billion by 2023. But to achieve a sustainable, decarbonised rail network in the UK, production methods exclusive of fossil fuels would need to become the norm.
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