Trains, busses, trucks. The’ve all got some things in common – they’re big, they’re powerful haulers, and they also tend to stink… especially busses, if you’re unlucky enough to sit next to a chain smoker. But that’s not the kind of stinkage I’m talking about here: all of these vehicles rely on huge, powerful engines that, in turn, guzzle down oil and gasoline like nobody’s business. It’s a shame, too, because trains and busses represent some of the best hopes we have for turning public infrastructure green. Busses can carry around dozens of people, reducing the need for cars, while modern freight and passenger trains can haul awe-inspiring loads – worth the weight of several dozen eighteen-wheelers. It’s a shame that the public good that these two innovations have is undercut significantly by the amount of greenhouse emissions they give off.
Now look at hydrogen. Humans have had a long history with this lighter-than-air substance, the most basic of all molecules. We’ve used it for a variety of purposes – both industrial and commercial – over the years. In the 1920s and 30s, we even experimented with vast reserves of hydrogen in early forms of air travel, using it to send zeppelins and dirigibles soaring, until a little ship called the Hindenburg put a stop to that line of engineering inquiry.
We may not be using hydrogen to cross the Atlantic again anytime soon, but we are putting this hardworking molecule to other functions in the transit field. Spurred on by the 1980 oil crisis, alternative energy sources have been on the mind of every scientist in the electricity field – an imperative only spurred on by rising greenhouse gasses and mounting climate change. After decades of innovation, scientists across the world pooled their resources and revealed the first commercially available “hydrogen fuel cell” in 2007.
Decades of work, some of it top secret, culminated in its development, which coincided with an increasing need to store the runoff from wind farms and solar plants. Hydrogen fuel cells can be thought of as gigantic, chemically-powered batteries. Hydrogen atoms are collected and stripped of their electrons. The now-ionized atoms carry a charge, which is collected and sent through negatively-charged wires to power the device in question. The only thing that the cell “burns” is water, meaning that things don’t get much smellier than odorless water vapor.
This technology has caught the attention of many nations in the world, especially those searching to lift themselves off the fossil fuel standard. At present, more than 90 per cent of Japan’s energy comes from imported fossil fuels. That’s why the country is heavily investing in hydrogen technology in the hopes of economically liberating itself from the constraints of foreign dependency. But some countries have gone beyond even that.
In Norway, rails have crisscrossed the snowy nation for 212 years. Over that time, a variety of different locomotive makes and models have come and gone; steam, diesel, electric. Now the company wants to take things into the 21st century by adopting hydrogen powered trains.
In the spring of 2015, Norway think tank SINTEF completed a study showing that it would be possible, and cheaper, to operate several emission-free lines using hydrogen-fuelled engines rather than deriving power from an overhead pantograph, including the longest route in the country. By switching over, the company concluded that more than 45 billion krone (or 67 million dollars) could be saved every year.
Germany has gone even farther than both Japan and Norway. In December 2017, Germany will launch the first ever hydrogen-powered commuter rail service. On the surface, this bright blue, almost toy-like design doesn’t scream “sleek” or “powerful” the way that the ornate Chunnel or TGV trains do. But don’t judge the Coradia iLint by its cover. This small engine won’t be hurtling from Berlin to Frankfurt any time soon; rather, it’s designed to provide clean and economic interurban service on lines that have yet to be electrified. It’s the first step towards the future, so get on board.