The New Steam Engine: Hydrogen-Powered Trains Coming Soon

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While hydrogen-powered cars might be falling to the wayside in favor of electric alternatives, trains covering long distances might hop on the hydrogen trend. French train manufacturer Alstom has recently unveiled the Coradia iLint, a new train free of carbon dioxide emissions thanks to its hydrogen fuel cells.

Even with diesel-powered trains, traveling by rail is seen as a greener alternative compared to flying or commuting by car. Studies have been boasting that trains cut greenhouse emissions by 90 percent in comparison to planes, though Alstom wants to negate those emissions entirely — and for good reason: a lot of the time, these studies only focus on emissions in operation. They don’t account for the emissions associated with construction of support buildings and laying tracks.

According to findings chronicled in The New York Times, “most current decision-making relies on analysis at the tailpipe, ignoring vehicle production, infrastructure provision, and fuel production required for support. We find that total life-cycle energy inputs and greenhouse gas emissions contribute an additional 63 percent for [on-road], 155 percent for rail, and 31 percent for air systems [relative to those vehicles’ tailpipe emissions].”

Since many countries use conventional diesel-powered trains, it’s of logistical interest to severe their reliance on fossil fuels and their rising costs, not to mention the associated impact on current greenhouse gas emissions. That’s where the Coradia iLint comes into play.

Blowing Off Steam

Alstom has been teasing its new train since 2014, though has recently announced that its first hydrogen-fueled train is set for delivery in northern Germany by the end of next year:

“Coradia iLinit is a new CO2-emission-free regional train and alternative to diesel power. It is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, its only emission being steam and condensed water while operating with a low level of noise. Alstom is among the first railway manufacturers in the world to develop a passenger train based on such a technology.”

Indeed, the train can fit 300 passengers and travel up to just under 500 miles at a cool 87 miles per hour, “spewing nothing more than water.” Hydrogen also allows the trains to zip across non-electrified rails, which is useful when covering large areas outside major cities where this infrastructure doesn’t exist or is impractical attempting to maintain.

The train uses “smart energy management” by producing hydrogen on-demand, combining hydrogen gas from storage tanks and oxygen from the atmosphere to power the fuel cell. The extra energy is then stored in high-performance lithium-ion batteries for later use, distributed by the train’s energy management systems where electricity is needed.



While this technology is revolutionary in its own right, there is still the concern of implementation, especially with the cost of the train’s infrastructure. Existing garages and stations need to be retrofitted with hydrogen fueling systems which, when scaled across entire rail networks, could cost a pretty penny.

Championing the titles such as being a “promoter of sustainable mobility” as well as a “world leader in integrated railways systems,” Alstom offers “a complete package consisting of the train and maintenance, as well as… the whole hydrogen infrastructure out of one hand thanks to help from [German and Canadian] partners.”

Though it’ll be a year or two before we see practical implementation of the Coradia iLint, it’s definitely exciting to see vehicles being ran on renewable hydrogen. While it’s been over 200 years since the invention of the train, this 21st century model certainly redefines the concept of steam engines.


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