As part of efforts to find alternative sources of fuel to power its trains, and to reduce reliance on fossil fuel-based energy sources like diesel and electricity, Indian Railways has set in motion efforts to build a hydrogen-powered rail engine that can propel a passenger train on a suburban route by the end of 2021.
The Railways’ efforts to develop a hydrogen-powered engine found mention at the 107th Indian Science Congress in Bengaluru this week, with former space scientist D Narayana Rao stating that a group from SRM University is working with Railways to develop the engine.
In November 2019, the Indian Railways Organisation for Alternate Fuels (IROAF) issued a call for interest in development of a hydrogen-powered rail engine — a technology that has been demonstrated successfully only in Germany so far.
“SRM University and IROAF have come up with the technical specifications to design a hydrogen-powered fuel cell-based train. So far only Germany has demonstrated and no other country in the world has done this,’’ Prof Rao, who is the pro-vice chancellor of SRM University, Amaravati, said on the sidelines of the Science Congress.
“The proposed train will have four passenger coaches operating at 75 km/hr speed. One coach will carry the hydrogen gas cylinders, fuel cells, super capacitors and DC converters. Hydrogen will be the input to the fuel cell and the power output of the fuel cell will drive the train,” he said.
“Fuel cell-based rail propulsion technologies powered by PEM (proton exchange membrane) using hydrogen fuel-cells and a standard battery system are being tried out globally for railroad applications. Elimination of fossil fuel and very low emissions are inherent advantages of such a rolling stock,” the IROAF has stated in its proposal for developing hydrogen-powered trains.
“On January 10 we will present our technical specifications to Indian Railways. Perhaps by end of 2021, we are hoping to have a functional train,’’ Rao said. A group of faculty at the university with expertise in hydrogen-powered fuel cell technology had initially proposed the hydrogen-powered engine to the Integral Coach Factory, but the project was subsequently taken up by the Indian Railways itself, he said.
“The hydrogen-powered train will be operated in suburban areas to start with,” Rao said. It is expected to later evolve into a train powered by engines that produce hydrogen on board using water splitting technologies, which are being experimented with around the world with the use of nano materials.
“The next phase is to generate hydrogen on board the train from water. This means that we want to convert water into hydrogen and use that hydrogen as the input for fuel cells. Here the role of nano catalysts will come into play to split water into hydrogen,” the professor said.
Until water splitting technologies are firmly established and are capable of producing pure hydrogen, the source of supply of the gas would have to be hydrogen that is available as a byproduct of some industries, he said.