Freight railroads have a reputation for being a good choice for shippers seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with railroads representing only 1.9% of transportation-related GHG emissions, according to the Association of American Railroads, quoting data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
But are there ways to make freight railroads even more environmentally friendly? One avenue some are exploring is through locomotive technology and seeing what technologies can decrease emissions from locomotives.
Earlier this week , FreightWaves chatted with scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to discuss a four-year project between Oak Ridge, Argonne National Laboratory and rail technology provider Wabtec (NYSE: WAB) aimed at developing a hybrid locomotive that can run on both diesel and hydrogen.
FreightWaves continues that discussion on using hydrogen in locomotives through this question-and-answer session with Philip Moslener, who serves as Wabtec’s corporate vice president for advanced technologies. He and his team explore developing technologies that range from artificial intelligence and machine learning to 3D printing and cybersecurity, in addition to technologies related to battery-electric and hydrogen-powered locomotives.
This Q&A session about how and why the rail industry is looking at hydrogen-powered locomotives was edited for length and clarity.
FREIGHTWAVES: How does Wabtec approach which locomotive technologies to focus on?
MOSLENER: The objective of the team is to [not just] investigate but to explore and experiment with the next-gen technologies, so looking towards what’s going to be the next thing that’s going to disrupt us or disrupt others in the industry and [how to] basically position the industry in a better spot.
We started decarbonizing through the FLXDrive: the battery-electric, loco[motive] . And that’s a really, really good step on that journey [to sustainability]. It’s an important piece but it’s not the end-all solution for decarbonizing, right?
With battery locomotives, what we are able to do is to capture that [energy that’s produced during deceleration of a locomotive] and recharge a battery, just like a Prius or an EV, so we can reuse it another time. In a consist, you have the three locomotives [powering a train], and you take a diesel locomotive out and replace it with the battery locomotive. On a consist level, that battery locomotive captures that braking energy and it gives it back to the train. Depending on the routes, we can get anywhere up to 30% of energy savings.
Now the thing is, you still have two other [locomotives] on there. To replace those, it would require something like 76 megawatt hours of batteries on board. Today, the large battery solution that we’re working on is 8 megawatt hours. Seventy-six megawatt hours versus 8 megawatt hours, that is still a … huge gap for battery technology to have such density to be able to get to that point.
Let’s say hypothetically one day we can get 76 megawatt hours, which is not going to be in my lifetime. But you still need a way to recharge that, and our [electric] grids are not necessarily adapted for that. And you would have some 20-odd locomotives that would need to be charged. And so for us, it’s probably not the right solution long term to have just 100% battery. Therefore, our objective is to replace the other two locomotives. So the question is, what do you do?
There are all kinds of alternatives out there that are being explored. Hydrogen [to power the locomotive] is the front-runner in our mind, although it’s not necessarily the only one. There’s a lot of talk about ammonia . Methanol is another one that comes back up once in a while. We did a liquid natural gas locomotive for Florida East Coast Railway. For that contract, we are able to convert an internal combustion engine to utilize liquid natural gas up to 80% substitution rates. So that means you have 80% of liquid natural gas, 20% of diesel. LNG is a way to decarbonize, but it doesn’t get you down to zero [carbon emissions] naturally. It’s a good transition towards that.
Among the multiple options out there right now, we see hydrogen as the top contender. And why we say that is because you have to look at which industry is going to be driving the cost of the alternative energy down, because it’s not rail. The railroads haul a significant amount of tonnage that we haul, but its volumes are not like the trucking industry. What we see out there are massive investments in hydrogen [more] than there are in ammonia or for any other alternative fuels.
FREIGHTWAVES: How does hydrogen fit into locomotive technology?
MOSLENER: So, you have clean hydrogen. What do you do with it? There are two ways you can utilize that hydrogen. One is through fuel cells. The hydrogen fuel cell is a process where you push hydrogen and oxygen through something that looks like a radiator. It looks like a heat exchanger, but it’s really membranes and you pass your gas through those membranes, and then there’s a chemical reaction which creates electricity and water — the fuel cell is the inverse of electrolysis, where you reverse it and you recombine the oxygen and hydrogen together and create water but by doing so, you release electricity electrons.
We have a partnership with General Motors to utilize their fuel cells and see how we can apply those fuel cells in locomotives. Now to me, that’s the end goal. But there are a couple of challenges. First of all, besides the cost of hydrogen, the technology level of fuel cells is not necessarily at the level that we would like it to be. In terms of energy density, these things take a lot of room. With the next generation of batteries, there’s been a reduction in the volumetric density of batteries. The same thing is going to happen with fuel cells. If you need more fuel cells, it will develop the need for getting tighter and tighter packages. Today’s packages may not be ideal for mainline locomotives, but next-gen[eration fuel cell battery packages], which are coming in 2027 and 2028, are going to be very interesting because they could actually be integrated into locomotives.
The question is, is there an intermediate step, just like cars when we went to a hybrid? We didn’t go from internal combustion engines right away to a full EV. We have the hybrid Prius, those types out there. That was a transition step where you could ensure yourself to get enough autonomy because range anxiety was one of the [concerns] – range anxiety.
The way we look at it is maybe there is an intermediate step before we actually get to that full fuel cell development step. And that step is what we’re doing with Argonne and Oak Ridge National Labs: taking the hydrogen and burning it in an engine rather than passing it through a fuel cell. And it’s similar technology to what we did with liquid natural gas — you had a mix of diesel and liquid natural gas, while here, we do a mix of diesel and hydrogen. We know we can do it because it’s very similar to what we did with LNG.
FREIGHTWAVES: Are you looking to create a new type of locomotive?
MOSLENER: It could be a new type of locomotive. Absolutely. We’re in 2023, and we’re looking at [a time frame of] 2023 to 2030. That’s why we’re doing R&D right now and understanding and talking to our customers about what they want, what will work for them, because it needs to work in their operations.
The other thing too is to make sure everybody’s aware that we need to invest in this, meaning, the industry needs to invest in this, the government needs to invest in this. This is not something that’s going to happen just by one company doing something. It’s an infrastructure play, a big one. But if you just think about it, one of the challenges is [that] we probably will never be able to fit all of that hydrogen onboard a single [locomotive]. We’re probably going to need to have a tender just like we had in Florida. So a tender car — think about a big tanker car. That’s your fuel tank that you’re carrying with you.
So there’s a lot of development that needs to be happening out there, and if you look across the planet, it’s not just the U.S. government getting involved. The U.S. is just starting to get involved, but in Europe and in Asia and Japan and Korea, they’ve been at it for 10-15 years — massive investments in hydrogen. I call it the race to hydrogen domination — the ones who are going to figure this out faster are going to be able to export their products and technology throughout the world. It’s not just about let’s make our environment better. It’s also [the race to] develop these technologies.
FREIGHTWAVES: Oak Ridge mentioned the opportunity to build upon the research for this project for other applications.
MOSLENER: Absolutely. We’re talking about hydrogen for transportation here — rail but also mining, marine applications. But hydrogen can be used in other applications. It’s going to be able to prosper where you have a lot of energy demand. I have a hard time believing that cars will ever go to hydrogen. I know there is a push for that, but cars have solved that problem with batteries. Batteries have enough range and can last the lifetime of a car now.
But for marine, mining, rail, hydrogen makes a lot of sense. Other places could be energy production. For example, if you don’t have access to renewable energies locally but you want to be able to produce electricity in a clean fashion … and create electricity and replace your old power plants, hydrogen is a good way.
But here’s where I think the rail industry could really benefit. We’ve been talking to our customers, saying, “Hey, produce electricity in a clean way using renewables in a place where there is renewable energy, carry it by rail, which is a low-cost, environmentally friendly way to carry it, and go and produce your electricity using hydrogen through fuel cells.” So I think rail can play an important part of creating what I’m going to call the energy grid of the future. [Instead of] electric wires, can you actually bring your energy through by rail to a place where you can eventually create that electricity? So it’s one way to look at it.
FREIGHTWAVES: Would this be through using the current rail network infrastructure?
MOSLENER: We’ve got 140,000 miles of track in the U.S. We’ve got an asset and we know it’s underutilized. Everybody knows that. There’s been multiple studies showing that. Of course, we’ve got a couple of congestion points left and right. But overall, we’ve got an infrastructure which I think we can maximize in a better way.
[But] we need to get the word out there [about hydrogen-related technologies] and show that first of all, we need to have the investments done, but there is a path [to decarbonization]. The progress being made in international negotiations, such as [the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference , or CO27 held in November] and the actions we’re doing in the industry will really have an impact on reducing greenhouse gases.
This also excites the new generation. We’ve hired new engineers who want to work on stuff that matters. And this is stuff that matters.