Rosie Hardy, Patent Attorney takes a look at hydrogen powered trains

The Coradia iLint has been described as the first ‘zero-emission’ hydrogen-powered train. Developed by Alstom, trials of the eco-friendly train will soon be getting underway in Lower Saxony, Germany. Once completed, hydrogen trains could soon be conveying travellers between Cuxhaven, Bremerhaven, Bremervorde and Buxtedude from 2021.

In the UK, Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, has recently announced that hydrogen trains are ‘a priority’, and it is reported that the Government is planning to pilot the Coradia iLint here in 2019/2020.

Hydrogen-powered trains could be used widely on the railway network on non-electrified lines; replacing the need for diesel-powered rolling stock. With zero-emissions, these trains could help Britain to meet its target to reduce CO2 emissions and improve air quality.

This vote of confidence for hydrogen-powered trains comes following the decision to cancel the electrification of the northern part of the Midland Main Line, connecting London, Manchester and Leeds. When pushed to explain the decision, Grayling told Parliament that he wanted hydrogen trains to be operating on the UK rail network ‘within a short period’ of time.

The Coradia iLint uses hydrogen fuel cell technology. These fuel cells have the advantage of being able to generate greater power than their battery-powered counterparts. As a result, the train is able to travel for longer distances of up to 620 miles and reach a maximum speed of 87mph.

Hydrogen fuel cells generate electricity using both hydrogen and oxygen. While the oxygen needed for the fuel cell can be drawn from the environment, hydrogen fuel must be brought onboard. As it can be obtained from water using an electrolysis process, hydrogen is readily available, but the electrolysis process requires electrical power.

Clearly the environmental benefits of hydrogen fuel cells are limited if the electrolysis process is powered by electricity generated by fossil fuels. In response to this problem, Canadian hydrogen generation and fuel cell company, Hydrogenics, has developed and patented an innovative energy network. This energy network is capable of powering electrolysis plants on the grid using a renewable energy source.

European Patent 1719235 describes the energy network as a two-tier system that is capable of providing electricity to meet consumer demand and hydrogen fuel production. Since renewable energy generation and demand can vary considerably, electrolysis plants are located in part of the grid and be controlled as ‘responsive loads’ so that they only operate during periods of excess supply and instability. As a result, zero-carbon hydrogen is generated only during these relief periods.

The patented energy network helps to balance supply and demand on the grid and allows the whole fuel cycle for hydrogen to be measured and controlled from generation through to end use. Hence, with the support of this patented energy network, hydrogen-powered trains can be both zero-emission and zero-carbon vehicles.

Rosie HardyRosie Hardy is a patent attorney at leading intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers