15 May 2017 13:39:37 IST

The future has begun

Blue-coloured, three-coach train prises open possibilities of using Hydrogen as fuel

In March this year, a new train was tried out on a test-track in Germany. The test run of the blue-coloured, three-coach train was successful. After some more checks and validations, the maker of the train, global heavy engineering giant Alstom will bring ‘Coradia iLint’ to commercial operation. The train’s first live run will be in 2018, and carry passengers between Buxtahude and Cuxhaven, in Germany.

So, what is the big deal about a new train? Well, to put it very simply, it’s new-ness. Here, ‘new’ does not mean ‘just out of factory’. ‘New’ here is the first definition of the term in a dictionary — it is an entirely new type of train.

How? Well, it runs on entirely on hydrogen! As a result, it is extremely quiet, and all that comes out of its exhaust is some steam.

A breakthrough!

The successful trial of the train is an event in the energy history of the world. It marks a milestone in the evolution of hydrogen gas as a fuel, something that mankind has been tinkering with for decades. In other words, it simply means that hydrogen’s time has come.

The world has been waiting, because hydrogen is one of the cleanest fuels in the world. It is the most abundant element on the planet, but it never occurs in its pure elemental form — it always exists as a compound, married to another element. The challenge is in separating it, which takes energy. But once you do it, hydrogen is a darling fuel, not the least because of an important trait that is called ‘energy density’.

Energy density refers to the amount of energy contained in a unit volume or mass of a substance. Hydrogen ranks pretty high. Just to compare it with other locomotive fuels — coal has energy density of 34 mega-joules per kg; diesel has 43. Hydrogen has 134!

If you can separate hydrogen — and you can do this. After all, it is also an industrial by-product (for instance, when you make caustic soda, you also get hydrogen) — and if you can store sufficient quantities of it to run an engine for long time, you have a winning proposition.

The future

These had been proving to be stiff challenges. But Coradia iLint has demonstrated that the summit has been conquered. It implies that technologists have found a way of storing enough hydrogen to haul a train over at least several tens of kilometres before the tanks need to be re-filled.

This means that those such as yourselves, who will inhabit this planet for decades to come, will need to keep a sharp eye out on the developments on the hydrogen front.

In the not-too-distant-future, hydrogen will power cars, buses and trains. The engines of these vehicles, instead of burning the gas in the combustion chambers, will convert the energy contained in the gas into electricity, which will, in turn, power the vehicles.

What are ‘fuel cells’?

The devices that do the trick are called ‘fuel cells’, of which there have been a few mentions in these columns. A fuel cell divides the hydrogen atom into a proton and an electron. The electron is made to flow along a cable, and flow of electrons is electricity. Coradia iLint runs on this.

Fuel cells are the cheapest, cleanest and easiest way of using hydrogen, and the world is making vast advances in this technology. What they are also experimenting with is combining solar and hydrogen. Use solar to generate electricity, use the electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, which are both industrial products. Hydrogen goes to feed fuel cells, oxygen goes to industries and hospitals — this way you don’t need lay expensive transmission lines from a solar (or, for that matter, wind) farm to ferry the energy.

India look

Last year, the government of India brought out a Hydrogen Road Map , which indicates that the government is quite seized of the use of gas. While one cannot say that the country has progressed a great deal in terms of hydrogen technology, some beginning has been made, and presumably, things will surge in the coming years. The Hydrogen Association of India acts as a common platform for all those interested in the fuel. Membership is open to anybody.

In 1876, the man who took us around and through the centre of the earth, Jules Verne, predicted that “water will be the coal of the future”. A small, blue train that ran in March has shown that Verne’s future has begun.