Germany’s emissions-free trains: Is hydrogen fuel really a better alternative for transport?

Source: The post is based on the article “Germany’s emissions-free trains: Is hydrogen fuel really a better alternative for transport?” published in Down To Earth on 13th September 2022.

What is the News?

Germany has launched the world’s first fleet of fully hydrogen-powered trains.

About the World’s first fleet of fully hydrogen-powered trains:

Launched by: Germany

Developed by: Alstom, a French multinational that also has operations in India (it supplied coaches for Delhi Metro).

Working: The trains are powered by what are called ‘fuel cells’ — a special kind of battery that produces electricity when hydrogen (stored in tanks above the coaches) and oxygen (taken from the air) combine. These are then used to power electric motors at the bottom of the train coach.

Significance: These trains are claimed as ‘emissions-free’ trains that can reach speeds of 140 kilometers per hour and can run about 1,000 km before the tank runs dry.

Are these trains completely emission-free?

The trains themselves are free of emissions but the hydrogen that fuels them may not be as ‘green’ as they are made out to be.

‘Green’ hydrogen makes up only 0.03% of global hydrogen production. It is up to five times more expensive than ‘grey’ hydrogen produced from natural gas or ‘brown’ hydrogen produced from coal. 

Due to the way it is produced, CO2 emitted by grey hydrogen is the same as that emitted by petrol and 1,000 times more than natural gas burnt directly.

Another alternative that many experts are pushing for is ‘blue’ hydrogen, which is grey hydrogen coupled with additional installations for carbon capture and storage incorporated into the production facility. 

This way up to 90% of the CO2 emitted during hydrogen production can be captured for reuse or storage and prevented from escaping into the atmosphere. 

The problem is that this ‘blue’ hydrogen costs 1.5-3 times more than grey or even brown hydrogen. Currently, only about 0.7% of global hydrogen production is blue.

Hence, in total, only 0.73% of the world’s hydrogen is actually clean and not contributing to climate change.

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