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Hydrail: A Tale of Two Metals

by guest blogger Stan Thompson

When the history of railway evolution in the first half of the twenty-first century is written, it may largely be a tale of two metals and their respective economics. Copper and hydrogen are both essential to the long-term economical delivery of electric power: copper to stationary applications and hydrogen to things that move over land and water and through the air.

Track electrification is a pricey but proven hybrid solution, powering moving trains and streetcars via massive stationary plant.

Hydrail (hydrogen fuel cell) railway traction is pursued primarily as a preferable alternative to petroleum railway traction fuel rather than as an alternative to track electrification.

The oil-emphasis of hydrail stems from the fact that replacing petroleum solves more conspicuous problems than placing a moratorium on electrification. Reducing oil dependence reduces particulate pollution; ozone precursors; greenhouse gas emissions; depletion of finite extractable resources which have important non-fuel uses; and “geoilpolitical” turbulence—reinforcement of barriers separating the populations of some oil-endowed nations from the levels of self-determination and confidence they observe abroad and demand at home.

It still makes little or no sense to contemplate replacement of modern electrified routes where they already exist in good operating order.

But the recent (and probably permanent) rise in the price of copper, driven by the emergence of China and India as industrial giants, is bound to shift the economic balance between hydrogen and copper in a way that requires rethinking capital deployment assumptions.

Hydrogen is destined to become cheaper and more plentiful as copper becomes ever more scarce and is priced accordingly.

For new, small, rail vehicle (“hydrolley”) alignments, about all that stands between overhead trolley systems and the end of the line is the absence—to date—of a hydrogen streetcar demonstration. The presence of proven hydrogen buses around the world shows that battery-fuel cell hydolleys are feasible at that scale and are over-due to make their debut.

At the other end of the scale, however, the much greater energy requirements of high-speed rail present disproportionately daunting hydrail engineering problems.

But that may not be the case always.

With the price of copper hovering near its all-time high, even in a lingering world recession (having approximately quadrupled in about three years) and the cost of track electrification at around US$ 7 million per mile, the break-even point between a crash program to scale-up hydrail technology to high-speed rail proportions may be closer in time than we suppose.

Even the keenest track electrification advocates would not seriously propose that switching yards and branch lines could economically be electrified nationally. If not, that means carbon-fuelled and/or battery traction would have to coexist with electrified main lines indefinitely. It would be the kind of uncomfortable hi-tech/lo-tech symbiosis the telephone industry experienced during the transition years from circuit-switched to digital call transmission.

If hydrail technology can side-track the copper supply problem and serve all rail technology scales (streetcars to high-speed rail and perhaps even cross-country freight), then the rail industry can converge toward a single, environmentally benign technology.

R&D costs will be enormous. Implementation will take decades.

But even these barriers are small in proportion to the cost of widespread track electrification.

And they could be negligible in proportion to the capital write-offs that would follow if massive electrification were already far advanced when fuel cell/battery hybrid rail traction (and mass production of low-cost hydrogen via emerging thermochemical technologies) inevitably overtake electrification and strand that redundant investment.

Prudent capital allocation between extravagant electrification and unfamiliar hydrail may be one of the toughest questions the rail industry chews on over the next few years.

But projected growth in the price of petroleum and copper may soften it up considerably.

About Stan Thompson

For 33 years I worked as an engineer, planner and futurist for what is now AT&T in Charlotte and Atlanta. Though I have no engineering degree, I'm a Life Member of the IEEE. Other memberships are the World Affairs Council, the local chapter of the National Association of Business Economics and the American Institute of Archaeology. (I dig international business, so to speak.)

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3 comments

  1. The math and the future are on your side in this argument. Is there a hydrogen streetcar – hydrolley – in service now or something similar?

  2. Bill,

    The first passenger hydrail service I’ve heard about is in Taiwan (http://english.people.com.cn/200704/13/eng20070413_366270.html).

    Two have been demonstrated in Japan; East Japan Railway (http://www.pinktentacle.com/2006/10/jr-tests-fuel-cell-hybrid-train/)

    …and the Government’s Railway Transportation Research Institute (URL in Japanese with drawings> rtri.or.jp/press/h18/sep29_2.html).

    The last I heard was that neither of the Japanese commuter hydrail trains are yet in revenue service..

    China seems the newest but details are sparse:

    http://english.peopledaily.com.cn/90001/90776/90882/7215009.html.

    Of course BNSF’s hydrail switch engine in Los Angeles is the biggest unit “afloat.” ( YouTube video = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMDgDbemCl0 )

    Thanks for your comment!

    —Stan Thompson

  3. Hey, your site is on air in the radio! Fine job mate. Your articles are genuinely very good and saved in bookmarks. Bye

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