Siemens and Deutsche Bahn plan trial of hydrogen-powered train in Germany

Energy

The Deutsche Bahn AG logo photographed on the Bahntower, Potsdamer Platz, Berlin.

Christoph Soeder | picture alliance | Getty Images

Siemens Mobility and Deutsche Bahn have laid out plans to develop and trial a hydrogen fuel-cell train, in the latest example of major firms turning to a technology which could have a significant effect on the environmental footprint of transportation systems.

According to a joint announcement issued earlier this week, the trial is slated to commence in 2024 and will see a train travel between Tübingen, Horb and Pforzheim in the southwest German state of Baden-Württemberg.

The prototype train, known as Mireo Plus H, will use a fuel-cell and lithium ion battery. Made up of two carriages, its range will extend to as much as 600 kilometers, or a little under 373 miles. It will boast a top speed of 160 kilometers per hour.

When the year-long pilot gets underway, the hydrogen train will take the place of a diesel one. It’s hoped the trial will save approximately 330 tons of carbon dioxide.

The collaboration will also look to work on the associated infrastructure the train will need.

To this end, Deutsche Bahn is to partially refit one of its maintenance shops to service the train and will also develop a fueling station for the vehicle.

Using electrolysis, water will be split into oxygen and hydrogen, with the latter compressed then stored in a mobile unit. The electricity used in this process will come from renewable sources.

Support for the initiative is coming from the state government of Baden-Württemberg. Funding is due to come from Germany’s Federal Ministry for Transport and Digital Infrastructure.

At the moment, Deutsche Bahn has approximately 1,300 diesel-powered trains being used on regional routes. In addition, around 40% of its sprawling 33,000 kilometer network is not yet electrified.

“Especially on non-electrified routes, hydrogen fuel cell propulsion can become a climate-friendly alternative to diesel propulsion,” Winfried Hermann, who is Baden-Württemberg’s minister of transport, said in a statement Monday. “Whether powered by overhead line electricity or hydrogen – the decisive factor is that the energy comes from renewable sources,” he added.

One of many projects

The partnership between Siemens Mobility and Deutsche Bahn comes at a time when a number of projects focused on hydrogen-powered transport are taking shape.

Firms such as Alstom have also developed trains which use hydrogen fuel-cells, while other examples include aircraft, buses and cars.

In comments sent to CNBC via email a spokesperson for Transport & Environment, a campaign group focused on clean transport, emphasized the need to ensure hydrogen was used in a mixture of transport options.

“Rail in Europe is already largely electrified, so it is not where the big environmental gains are to be made,” they said.

“We need hydrogen in transport where batteries aren’t possible,” they added. “First and foremost, that means shipping and aviation. For long-haul trucks, the race is wide open.”

The spokesperson went on to state: “The biggest obstacle facing us is making sure that hydrogen is made from clean electricity. Producing hydrogen from fossil gas is not clean. We need to make sure it’s based on additional, renewable electricity.”

Interest in green hydrogen — a term used to refer to hydrogen that’s produced using renewable sources such as wind and solar — has started to increase in recent years. 

A number of major players such as Orsted and BP are undertaking projects looking at the sector, while the European Union has laid out plans to install 40 gigawatts of renewable hydrogen electrolysers and produce as much as 10 million metric tons of renewable hydrogen by 2030.

To put the EU’s goals into context, the International Energy Agency says global hydrogen production currently amounts to roughly 70 million metric tons per year.

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