Could Hydrogen Fuel Cells Hit Rails Before Roads? Some advocates think hydrogen-powered railroads could jumpstart the hydrogen economy. One fuel-cell locomotive is already undergoing tests. Ira Flatow and guests discuss the possibility of using hydrogen, rather than diesel fuel or electricity, to power trains.
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Could Hydrogen Fuel Cells Hit Rails Before Roads?

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Could Hydrogen Fuel Cells Hit Rails Before Roads?

Could Hydrogen Fuel Cells Hit Rails Before Roads?

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

Later in the hour, the newest nanotech innovations. But first, way back in the early 1800s, a Welsh scientist named William Robert Grove demonstrated the first hydrogen fuel cell combining hydrogen with oxygen to get an electric current; the byproduct of this reaction, of course, was a good old H2O. And that was, I'm talking about the fuel cell being patented in the early 1800s. Well, 100 years went by without any practical applications until the space program investigated fuel cells for use on space craft, including the space shuttle, where they provide electric power and even drinking water for the astronauts. But here on Earth we're still struggling to take advantage of hydrogen fuel cells as cheap, clean ways to power cars and buses.

But now some scientists are saying we should refocus our fuel cell attention on a different form of transportation. Let's not think about using fuel cells on cars like we've heard about all this time. How about trains? Think about it. Locomotives - the train that takes you - your commuter train takes you up and down the East Coast. These locomotives, they run on electricity. And they could easily carry the hydrogen right with them, right in car in large quantities, enough that they need to run the train. And now, right now, a fuel cell hybrid locomotive is undergoing testing in Colorado. It is a product of a partnership between the railroad company - Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the U.S. Army, and vehicle projects - that's a small Colorado company that works on fuel cell vehicle prototypes.

So this hour, we're going to be talking about how hydrogen trains might be able to jump start the hydrogen energy economy. What sort of infrastructure would we require? Where would we get all that hydrogen? Let's say we can convert all these locomotives to hydrogen to have enough of it? We can't mine deposits of hydrogen like we do for uranium or natural gas or oil. We have to produce it. Would we will be able to do that with clean energy? And will fuel cells ever drop in price enough that we can build more than one of these $5 million locomotives? That's what we'll be talking about, a lot to chew on. So give us call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.

And if you like to tweet, you can Twitter - and you can tweet us at @scifri, that's @SCIFRI. And of course folks in Second Life are there talking along with us. Let me introduce my guests. Melanie Johnson is research project manager for the Fuel Cell Locomotive at the Construction Engineering Research Lab, part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Champaign, Illinois. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Ms. Johnson.

Ms. MELANIE JOHNSON (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers): Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Robert Remick is a director of the Hydrogen Technologies and Systems Center at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Dr. ROBERT REMICK (National Renewable Energy Lab): Greetings.

FLATOW: Alistair Miller is senior scientific associate in the office of the principal scientist at Atomic Energy of Canada Limited at the Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Miller.

Dr. ALISTAIR MILLER (Chalk River Laboratories): Thank you.

FLATOW: Alistair Miller, you had this idea for hydrogen trains quite a while ago, right?

Dr. MILLER: Well, yes. I published a paper back in 1999, which actually wasn't the first paper on the subject, but it seemed to have caught attention in a way that the others hadn't.

FLATOW: And why do you think now is a good time to do this?

Dr. MILLER: Well, we have to find ways to get off carbon-based fuels, since transportation is such an important component. I mean, it's approaching 30 percent of total energy use. This would seem to be something that would be better done sooner rather than later. And the choice really, it seems to me, to be between electricity and hydrogen. Hydrogen looks like a very interesting way of delivering energy to a moving vehicle, and trains look like a very good place to start.

FLATOW: Yeah, Melanie Johnson, you can take all the hydrogen you want with you, could you not?

Ms. JOHNSON: That's the theory, yes.

FLATOW: And you've been involved in this hydrogen fuel cell hybrid locomotive. Tell us about it.

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, the - we call it the fuel cell locomotives over here. It's basically a switchyard locomotive that will run on hydrogen. It has a 250 kilowatt fuel cell power plant and the ability to provide a megawatt of power from its battery bank for high transient loads.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So is it working off the battery they get charged from the fuel cell or directly off the fuel cell?

Ms. JOHNSON: It's both.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. JOHNSON: The fuel cell power plant does charge the battery during idle periods and then both the fuel cell power plant and that large battery provide energy to the traction motors.

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. JOHNSON: When the locomotive needs it.

FLATOW: So what's the difference between a switcher locomotive and a freight locomotive, let say?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, the switcher locomotive primarily stays in a rail yard. Its job is to assemble train cars or disassemble train cars as needed. The open freight locomotives travel very long distances, whereas our switcher locomotive will pretty much stay put.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And Robert Remick, the advantage of this is that it's a train, right?

Dr. REMICK: Yes, yes. Obviously anybody who sees a diesel engine going down the tracks understands why using hydrogen as a clean fuel, it makes lot of sense for the environment.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. REMICK: I do need to do one thing, though. I got to - since (unintelligible) here tracking as part of the national fuel cell vehicle learning demonstration. We're tracking 140 fuel cell vehicles and five transit buses. So we don't view this as a case of fuel cell locomotives replacing the vehicles. We need they do all of these - cars, buses, and the locomotives.

FLATOW: But this is one part of that mix.

Dr. REMICK: This is one part of that mix that has kind of been neglected, yes.

FLATOW: And neglected, what kind of fuel does the locomotive use, Melanie?

Ms. JOHNSON: It runs off hydrogen.

FLATOW: And where do you get the hydrogen from?

Ms. JOHNSON: Right now the hydrogen - well, it's pressurized hydrogen. We carry 70 kilograms on board the locomotive and we can get it from either electrolyzing water or from reforming natural gas.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Alistair Miller, how would you collect that hydrogen - in your vision of hydrogen locomotive system?

Dr. MILLER: Well, we envisage it primarily being made by the electrolytic route. There are future ways perhaps that might some day work, but today electrolysis of water seems to be the right way. And so you would generate hydrogen during the off peak period so that the cost of the electricity was comparatively low. It would help to steady the load on the whole electric grid and it wouldn't put any strain in the way that widespread electrification would if you took the electricity directly from the grid and fed it to the crack(ph).

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And there might be refueling stations along the way, so…

Dr. MILLER: Not very many of them. That's one of the attractions.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. MILLER: Because trains can carry lots and lots of fuel. It's not a big issue. The system that's being talked about here in Southern Ontario for commuter rail around Toronto, you can probably get by with a single refueling point.

FLATOW: One refueling point.

Dr. MILLER: Hmm. Yeah, and that's a big attraction compared to doing this for cars and on highways in general.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. It's interesting, Melanie Johnson, that a fuel cell is strong enough. We don't think of fuel cells as being powerful enough to push a locomotive.

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, we actually have two fuel cell stacks on board this locomotive. They're each 125 kilowatts and they're these same Ballard(ph) fuel cell stacks that are used in fuel cell buses that are, I hear, fairly common in Europe.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Is there enough hydrogen around, Robert Remick, to be able to, you know, fuel all these - let say we're now in the future and have a lot of these hydrogen locomotives working?

Dr. REMICK: Yeah. I don't think there's any problem at all. The United States produces almost 90 million tons of hydrogen every year for the petroleum industry, for the ammonia industry, and for the chemical industry. For example, just doubling the current capacity we have for making hydrogen could fuel as many as 20 million fuel cell vehicles. So that making the hydrogen isn't the issue. As Mr. Miller suggested, it's a problem for fuel cell vehicles - how do you get it distributed through the countries? No, production of hydrogen is not the problem.

FLATOW: You know, Melanie, I take a commuter train every week and sometimes these commuter trains have the diesel locomotives on them and they are so noisy.

Ms. JOHNSON: They are. I was recently at the commissioning of the fuel-cell locomotive and got to stand beside it while it was running for the first time, and it is surprisingly quiet. It actually caught me off guard, though it shouldn't have.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JOHNSON: The loudest part was the bell that was ringing to let you know it was coming.

FLATOW: Well, you know, if you can have - how much does a locomotive weigh, 100 tons or something. I don't know. What does it weigh?

Ms. JOHNSON: I am not sure.

FLATOW: Well, let's say it weighs many, many tons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: If you could have a quiet diesel locomotive that, you know, makes no noise, why couldn't you have a quiet tank that makes no noise when it moves, a tank powered by fuel cells?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, I suppose it's a possibility, but it is a little outside, I guess, our scope in this research project right now.

FLATOW: I'm just thinking ahead and thinking of, you know, big engines doing quiet things. I can, you know, you've ever heard of - stood next to a tank when it's…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JOHNSON: Right.

FLATOW: You like quiet tanks on battlefields. That would seem to be something the military would also be looking in besides the locomotives.

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, maybe sometime in the future.

FLATOW: So how soon do you see this happening, Robert, going - is this something practical? We hear states like the state of California is thinking about creating a rapid transit system between L.A. and San Francisco, a new train set up. Could they use something like a hydrogen-powered train?

Mr. REMICK: Yes, they could, and I believe fuel cells are coming. I mean, the same technology that's being used for the vehicles can be used in the locomotives. The amount of platinum being used is being reduced significantly. The durability of these fuel cells will be expanded. The program in the vehicle fleet right now is actually moving faster than we originally thought it would about four or five years ago when these programs were started.

FLATOW: Could you retrofit current locomotives, or do you have to build new ones?

Mr. REMICK: I believe you probably are going to have to redesign. If you're going to do something efficiently, you're going to have to redesign the locomotive.

FLATOW: You will?

Mr. REMICK: Yeah. You can retrofit the - you could easily retrofit existing locomotives to do this, but it would not end up being the most efficient package.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is the number. So we don't really need to invent anything really new here is what you're saying.

Mr. REMICK: No, most of the work that's being done right now is to bring the cost down. The technology, this isn't high tech. This isn't something that is 20 years in the future. We know how to do this now. The question is figuring out how to manufacture them for one-tenth the current price.

FLATOW: We need a little stimulus money here, sounds like.

Mr. REMICK: No comment. I work for a government lab.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I don't think anybody would ever turn down stimulus money. Well, some people have, actually. But so this is not something pie in the sky. This is something that really could happen. It's quite possible.

Mr. REMICK: Yes, it could.

FLATOW: All right. Well, I want to thank all of you for taking time to be with us. I'd love to see my railroad track say hydrogen-powered locomotive.

We have to take a short break. Stay with us. We'll come back, take your calls, 1-800-989-8255, talking about hydrogen locomotives. Maybe you'd like to have one around your town, going through your city. Maybe you've seen one happening. Maybe you have a congressperson who's interested. I'd like to hear about it, 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I am Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about having fuel cells run locomotives, run your train system. I wish Lionel had one that I could do with my little, you know, train set at home. I'm sure someone has a science fair project now somewhere that is taking a fuel cell, sticking it on a little locomotive for a science fair project and running - maybe they'll have one after the show is open. And we gave them a good idea for a science fair project.

My guests are Melanie Johnson, she's research project manager for the Fuel Cell Locomotive at the Construction Engineering Research Lab, that's part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Champaign, Illinois; Robert Remick, director of the Hydrogen Technologies and Systems Center at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado; Alistair Miller, senior scientific associate in the Office of the Principal Scientist at Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, that's at the Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario. Our number, 1-800-989-8255.

Alistair, if we're using energy to do electrolysis and produce hydrogen, why not just use that energy to charge the batteries and have a total battery-powered electric train?

Mr. MILLER: It's a good question. My understanding, although I'm not an expert in batteries, is that batteries today have difficulty carrying sustained usage over long periods. They prefer to work over a limited range. And so, you'll be thinking of a tremendous quantity of battery power, and it probably wouldn't last terribly long because it is a heavy-duty usage, but it is a possibility.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Dennis(ph) in Jacksonville, Florida. Hi, Dennis.

DENNIS (Caller): Hi, how are you?

FLATOW: Hi there.

DENNIS: My question concerns the somewhat short trip we seem to be getting to the infrastructure and safety problems. Also, the electrolysis of water to create hydrogen is not very efficient. It takes an enormous amount of energy, but what about avoiding a Hindenburg effect when a train with a big tank of hydrogen gas gets hit?

FLATOW: Robert Remick, can you tackle that?

Mr. REMICK: Well, first off, I would argue that electrolysis is actually extremely efficient. You can buy industrial-scale electrolyzers and end up with 80 percent of the energy and the electricity in the hydrogen when you're done.

As far as the Hindenburg effect is concerned, there's been an awful lot of work done on hydrogen safety for the vehicles. It has shown that it is actually safer than the gasolines we're using in the fuel - for fuel right now. So I would suspect that these issues will not rise with the locomotive.

Hydrogen, were you to split the tank open or knock off a pipe, is so light that it's going to go straight up into the atmosphere. So you're not going to have this pooling effect you have with liquid fuels, where they run out around the vehicle and catch fire.

FLATOW: All right, Dennis, thanks for calling. What about retrofitting, Melanie Johnson? I understand that when you retrofit the experimental locomotive that you had, you had to add weight back to it because it was lighter when you were done with it.

Ms. JOHNSON: That's right. When the diesel engine and the diesel fuel tank were removed from the original Switcher locomotive, we actually had to add a 9,000 kilogram ballast to the locomotive to give it enough weight to have enough traction to pull the train cars.

FLATOW: Because the wheels would spin?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JOHNSON: There's a regulation weight for locomotives, as I understand it. And without the ballast, it didn't meet it.

FLATOW: Ah, so we'd have to have a new regulation for locomotives if we just didn't want to add extra weight to them.

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, you still have to make them heavy enough to pull train cars, too.

FLATOW: Right, right. That's a good point, 1-800-989-8255. Jean(ph) in Portland, Oregon. Hi, Jean.

JEAN (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi there.

JEAN: Yeah, I wanted to speak to the availability of the hydrogen supply because it's true that we do have a lot of hydrogen produced in this country, but it's being produced with a reaction with natural gas. So the end product is hydrogen, but it's also CO2.

So I just wanted to let you know about a project that I was part of that's being carried out through European Energy Labs that produces hydrogen by splitting water using very high-temperature solar energy, and it's a closed cycle using zinc.

So the zinc itself is what's splitting the water. And the zinc, as you probably know, can be used in electric cars if that's the interest, but it will also split the water and return zinc oxide.

FLATOW: Let me bring in Alistair Miller on this.

Mr. MILLER: Yes. It's an interesting concept, and I'm in fact involved in an international collaboration to look at ways to use very high temperatures, either solar or nuclear from advanced nuclear reactors, to produce hydrogen without electrolysis or with a relatively small amount of electricity.

The problem with that is that these technologies are not yet really ready for use. The ones that we're looking at in this international collaboration are probably still 15 or 20 years off. So interesting possibility down the track, but this is a technology that's ready to be used today. And for that, convention electrolysis is probably the appropriate way. And, of course, it has to come from some source that doesn't emit carbon dioxide along the way. That's a good point.

FLATOW: Okay, Jean.

JEAN: Well, there is actually a project that was carried to pilot term. It did have carbon involved, but it was carried to basically a stage that it could be taken up by industry using a solar heat source and carbon as the reducing agent instead of pure heat.

FLATOW: All right, thanks for calling. Alistair, you were mentioning also some time back, or someone had mentioned in one of the papers, that you could use excess electricity produced, let's say, by existing nuclear power plants.

Mr. MILLER: Yeah. And here in Ontario, we have a small number of coal-fired plants still, which the government has promised to phase out. We'll be replacing those with systems which are either not controllable, like wind, or with nuclear. And nuclear does a good job of providing base load. It does not like being switched on and off. And it's not very economically efficient, either. So making fuel in the off-peak periods is highly attractive.

FLATOW: Robert Remick, is there any significant difference between making a hydrogen fuel cell for a large vehicle like a train or a bus rather than doing it for cars?

Mr. REMICK: No. In fact, as one of the speakers mentioned, what's happening is these 150-kilowatt fuel cell units are being built by Ballard for transit buses can just be ganged together to make a larger - I think you put seven of them together, and you have a megawatt for locomotives.

Fuel cells are very much like batteries in that they don't have much of a good scale-up factors. So you build them in units and then string a number of units together. And that's the advantage. The technology that's being developed for one area like fuel-cell vehicles makes advances in buses and locomotives that much easier.

FLATOW: I don't think people are aware that fuel cells are quite common as back-up power-generating systems already.

Mr. REMICK: Yeah, they're being used. We wish they were a lot more common. But yeah, they're being used…

FLATOW: Hospitals and places like that.

Mr. REMICK: Right. Those aren't the hydrogen fuel cells primarily. Those are the natural-gas fuel cells.

FLATOW: But, as you say, if we can get more of those in use, hydrogen ones, people would know more about them. Melanie Johnson, the military has invested in this project that you're talking along with Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Why would the military be interested in a locomotive?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, the Department of Defense and the Army both have a lot of goals and targets that are related to our energy usage. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and the Energy Policy Act of 2005 both lay out a number of goals that require us to reduce our fossil-fuel usage and improve our energy security, and the locomotive contributes to both.

FLATOW: We don't hear a lot about military locomotives. I would think that this was surprising that, you know, the railroads might be interested, but why - you know, and I said tanks before, but why would the military have a use for a locomotive?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, this particular locomotive has the ability to supply electricity to the grid.

FLATOW: Ah.

Ms. JOHNSON: And that's particularly interesting to us because now we have a large, mobile backup generator that can supply electricity in contingency operations or in response to emergencies, and it can supply its electricity to operation centers, medical facilities, anywhere that it's critical and needed.

FLATOW: So that any - not just the military, but you're saying, if I extend this analogy a little bit, any company, hospital, school, anybody that's near a railroad track or has one running through their plant could conceivably say, hey, I need that locomotive to come over here because we need a backup power of energy today, backup source of energy today.

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, it can - it is a mobile backup generator, essentially. So our primary interest in it is, of course, for military operations.

FLATOW: Yeah, but I'm expanding the idea. And I think it's a great idea, you know? Why not have a whole bunch of rolling stock that's backup electric supplies, go wherever you need them?

Ms. JOHNSON: Exactly.

FLATOW: Boy, I'm thinking too big today. I want to thank all of you for taking time to be with us today. Alistair Miller is senior scientific associate in the Office of the Principal Scientist at Atomic Energy of Canada Limited at the Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario. Thanks, Alistair, for being with us on this weekend.

Mr. MILLER: My pleasure.

FLATOW: Robert Remick is the director of the Hydrogen Technologies and Systems Center. That's at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado, folks we've dealt with quite often. Thank you, Robert.

Dr. REMICK: You're welcome.

FLATOW: And Melanie Johnson is research project manager for the Fuel Cell Locomotive at the Construction Engineer Research Lab, and it's all part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Champaign.

Melanie, when might we see this rolling? Can anybody see it?

Ms. JOHNSON: Well, it is scheduled to be demonstrated in just another couple months in a rail yard in Los Angeles.

FLATOW: Will you let us know where that is?

Ms. JOHNSON: Sure.

FLATOW: Okay. Thanks for taking the time to be us, Melanie.

Ms. JOHNSON: Oh, no problem. Thank you.

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