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HYDRAIL: FROM RESOLVE TO RAILS IN 11 YEARS

By guest blogger Stan Thompson

In 2005 in Charlotte, North Carolina, for the benefit of society a handful of citizens, companies and agencies set about changing the railroad traction paradigm for the first time since 1925 when diesel began replacing steam. The societal benefits being pursued were climate change mitigation; air pollution reduction; and the conservation of capital investment which otherwise would become stranded in antiquated overhead trolley superstructure construction.

The new traction innovation was hydrail—hydrogen rail. Hydrail is a wireless way to electrify rail corridors by carrying power onboard as gaseous or liquid hydrogen which can be reacted with air in fuel cells to make current to power traction motors.

Hydrogen and fuel cells replace the overhead wire called a “catenary” as well as the very expensive power distribution network needed to make it work.

The organizers’ strategy was to convene all known hydrail projects from around the world at an International Hydrail Conference so that they could share technical and strategic information and build off each other’s work. The 2005 funding sponsors were Bank of America’s multi-departmental Enviro-Team; the State Energy Office of North Carolina; the Centralina Council of Governments (representing the cities, towns and counties comprising the Charlotte Metropolitan Area); Appalachian State University’s Energy Center in Boone, NC; and the Mooresville South Iredell and Charlotte Chambers of Commerce.

The organizers knew it would be a long pull. They named the original event “The First International Hydrail Conference”. Successive annual “IHCs” were held in Canada, Denmark, Germany, England, Spain and Turkey as well as the USA.

Eight years later at the Eighth International Hydrail Conference (Toronto, Ontario, Canada: 2013) the organizers’ strategy paid-off exactly as planned: Canada’s Hydrogenics Inc., one of the world’s largest fuel cell and hydrogen equipment manufacturers, began private negotiations with Alstom, the Paris-headquartered international energy and transportation giant. In 2015, the two companies announced that four German states—Niedersachsen, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Baden-Württemberg and Hesse—had ordered a fleet of forty hydrail commuter trains to be built in Salzgitter, Germany, and deployed between 2018 and 2020.

A fifth German State, Schleswig-Holstein, is now developing plans to electrify the entire State’s rail network (presently 65% diesel) by 2025 using hydrogen made exclusively from zero-carbon energy—primarily excess off-peak wind turbine power.

This German hydrail complex derives directly from that First International Hydrail Conference in Charlotte in 2005.

This year, on 4 and 5 July, 2016, the Mooresville and Appalachian State Conference organizers are partnering for a second time (2012 was the first) with the University of Birmingham UK’s Centre for Railway Research and Education. In 2013 the University of Birmingham became the first university to grant a doctorate specifically in hydrail technology.

Emphasis this year will be on the German hydrail projects and also on China’s two new hydrail train manufacturing companies—the Sifang Qingdao Manufacturing Division of China South Railways and Tangshan Railway Vehicle Company’s partnership with Southwest Jiaotong University. Both are partnering with Ballard Power Systems of Canada.

Later blogs will soon provide detailed specifics as to 11-IHC presentations, speakers and the agenda but basic information, and the ability to register, is already available online: http://www.hydrail.org.

Let me end this guest blog with a grateful salute to our host, Kevin Kantola, who created and publishes Hydrogen Cars Now. Kevin’s generosity in sharing this space and in providing the International Hydrail Conference with access to the other blogs and sites who follow Hydrogen Cars Now has contributed greatly over the years to our Conferences’ effectiveness in moving hydrail ahead more rapidly worldwide and attaining our environmental and economic objectives.

Thank you, Kevin!

Thanks also to Bank of America, without whose 2005 funding, encouragement and planning assistance Germany—and perhaps China—would still be far from the railway-based climate mitigation they are now poised to contribute.

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