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Hydrogen fuel cell trains herald new steam age

June 9, 2018

By Paul Homewood


The Times reports:



Britain’s railways are to enter a new steam age with up to 100 ageing commuter trains poised to be converted to run on eco-friendly hydrogen. They could be on the network within three years and will be almost silent, with the same range and speed as traditional diesel and electric trains.

Their only emissions will be water, with some released as small puffs of steam above the train. The conversion programme — drawn up by Alstom, the French train maker — would make Britain a world leader in hydrogen train technology. Jo Johnson, the rail minister, called in February for all Britain’s 3900 diesel trains to be scrapped by 2040.


There is no mention of where the hydrogen itself will come from, but the choice is between the steam reforming process, which uses fossil fuels and produces emissions of CO2 anyway, and electrolysis, which traditionally has been very small scale and expensive.

I came across this useful analysis, which helps to explain:


Hydrogen is not an energy source, but is an energy vector or carrier. This means that it has to be produced from one of the primary energy sources: fossil fuels, nuclear, solar, wind, biomass, hydro, geothermal and urban waste resources. All the energy we use, including hydrogen, must be produced from one of these three primary energy resources.

On earth, hydrogen is found combined with other elements. For example, in water, hydrogen is combined with oxygen. In fossil fuels, it is combined with carbon as in petroleum, natural gas or coal. The challenge is to separate hydrogen from other naturally occurring compounds in an efficient and economic manner. See the "Hydrogen Production Paths" chart below for unique ways to produce hydrogen from the three sources.

There are several methods for producing or extracting hydrogen. Steam reforming is a well-established technology that allows hydrogen production from hydrocarbons and water. Steam-methane reformation currently produces about 95 percent of the hydrogen used in the United States.

Another conventional technique is electrolysis, which applies electrical current to decompose water into hydrogen and oxygen molecules. The electricity for electrolysis can come from any of the three energy sources.

Chart displaying possible hydrogen production paths.

The cost of hydrogen production is an important issue. Hydrogen produced by steam reformation costs approximately three times the cost of natural gas per unit of energy produced. This means that if natural gas costs $6/million BTU, then hydrogen will be $18/million BTU. Also, producing hydrogen from electrolysis with electricity at 5 cents/kWh will cost $28/million BTU — slightly less than two times the cost of hydrogen from natural gas. Note that the cost of hydrogen production from electricity is a linear function of electricity costs, so electricity at 10 cents/kWh means that hydrogen will cost $56/million BTU.


As is stated, the cost of producing hydrogen is directly linked either to the cost of fossil fuels, or the price of electricity.

Intrinsically then, hydrogen produced by steam reforming will always cost much more than natural gas, due to the processing involved. And there is nothing to suggest that electrolysis will suddenly become a cheaper, bulk scale alternative.

  1. Joe Public permalink
    June 9, 2018 10:25 am

    ” … there is nothing to suggest that electrolysis will suddenly become a cheaper, bulk scale alternative.”

    But … but … but … instead of paying to constrain-off windmills during windy periods, their excess output can put to good use. /sarc.

    • dennisambler permalink
      June 11, 2018 3:18 pm

      Solar panels and wind turbines on top of every train. Oops, forgot the bridges!

  2. Malcolm permalink
    June 9, 2018 10:52 am

    How does the UK buying technology and product from France make the UK a world leader in that technology?

    By that argument I am a world leader in smart phone technology because I have bought one.

    What it really means is that yet again we have slipped further behind the world leaders.

    • A C Osborn permalink
      June 9, 2018 11:11 am

      Except of course it is not actually “leading” the world in anything other than shifting CO2 production from the trains to elsewhere.
      It is also leading the world in how to waste money as well.

      • The Rick permalink
        June 10, 2018 12:26 pm

        And leading the way on how to charge more for my train ticket…

    • john cheshire permalink
      June 9, 2018 11:37 am

      That’s what I thought. And as AC Osborn observes, it’s yet another fantasy project which will cost us, the taxpayer and the traveler, more than it needs to be.

      But when the swamp is in control, what else can we expect?

  3. Bloke down the pub permalink
    June 9, 2018 11:36 am

    Converting the trains to run on compressed natural gas would seem to be far more practicable and would cut out the waste involved with producing the hydrogen. Obviously the downside would be the reduction in opportunities for ministers to virtue signal, though signalling on the railways has always been an issue.
    BTW, how could these new trains possibly have the same range as electric trains? Did they mean diesel-electric?

  4. Richard permalink
    June 9, 2018 11:45 am

    Smoke and mirrors as usual!do

    • tom0mason permalink
      June 10, 2018 4:07 am

      Urine is a good source of ammonia and nitrates to make ammonia, maybe they could have a piss-collector on board these trains, echoing the ‘old days’ when urine was use for making gun powder.
      And a new jobs and new job titles created — ‘Virgin Trains Official Urine Extractor’ . ‘South Eastern Trains Official Urine Extractor’, ‘Thameslink & Great Northern Trains Official Urine Extractor’, etc.

      Of course Southern Trains do not need these operatives as the management have been taking the piss for years.

  5. Ben Dussan permalink
    June 9, 2018 1:08 pm

    Did you forget to mention the storage methods for Hydrogen? Among them: compression (adds cost and risks of explosions and leakage), liquefaction (adds cost and losses by evaporation whilst on standby), and metal halides (adds a bit to the cost and I think that it would store the most H2 per unit volume at lower risks)….

  6. June 9, 2018 1:52 pm

    Reblogged this on Climate Collections.

  7. June 9, 2018 2:55 pm

    Might as well just burn natural gas, you neatly spread the harmless carbon dioxide emissions around the country rather than emit in a few places.

  8. Mike A permalink
    June 9, 2018 3:15 pm

    The chemical plant at Runcorn (I think now Ineos Chlor) make lots of hydrogen as a by-product of chlorine manufacture. They made (make?) an embarrassing surplus of it, and had to vent it to the atmosphere. Their consumption of electricity in the electrolysis was massive (a significant proportion of the grid for one industry), so we’re talking a lot of hydrogen. Perhaps that could be put to good use – not sure why it wasn’t in the past, or if they’ve now found a good use for it.

    • Gerry, England permalink
      June 9, 2018 3:31 pm

      I used to use hydrogen in the ExHaz testing industry where it is used to generate the higher explosion pressure in an enclosure to be then used as a base for a 1.5x hydraulic pressure test.

      • Joe Public permalink
        June 9, 2018 4:31 pm

        *Hydrogen* explosions caught on camera:

  9. Athelstan permalink
    June 9, 2018 3:36 pm

    Hydrogen trains, another accident waiting to happen, never mind though it all sounds so green and if it sounds green then the thinking goes that it must be green – and industrial processes to produce H? never mind your pretty little head – luvs! The list of useless moonbeam tech’ grows Whirlygigs and PV arrays, lecky buggies, move aside, another green boondoggle is arriving at platform agenda 21 and were all going terminal green.

    • Joe Public permalink
      June 9, 2018 5:02 pm

      “Hydrogen trains, another accident waiting to happen”

      Not necessarily.

      A diesel-fuelled locomotive carries a fuel storage tank, and should this tank or interconnecting pipework rupture, the highly flammable liquid pools beneath the leak.

      If a hydrogen storage tank or interconnecting pipework ruptures, the escaping gas vents upwards to atmosphere.

      The energy required to ignite H2 can be just 1/10th that of petroleum products, but H2 does have far wider flammability & explosion limits.

      Click to access h2_safety_fsheet.pdf

      • Ben Dussan permalink
        June 9, 2018 5:16 pm

        Joe Public,

        Diesel fuel is NOT highly flammable (as a matter of fact, if you drop a lit match into a bucket, say half full of diesel fuel, no explosion or fire would ensue (the match would just drown). As you said, H2 have far wider flammability and explosion limits: all what is needed is a spark to ignite the H2 violently upon an accident.

      • Ben Dussan permalink
        June 9, 2018 5:32 pm

        Take a look at this:

      • Ben Dussan permalink
        June 9, 2018 5:37 pm

        And at this:

      • Ben Dussan permalink
        June 9, 2018 5:46 pm

        And this one too:

      • Joe Public permalink
        June 9, 2018 7:53 pm

        BD – Thnx – that Y/tube vid was very interesting.

      • tom0mason permalink
        June 10, 2018 4:10 am

        Would be ‘interesting’ having a hydrogen leak in a tunnel.

      • Athelstan permalink
        June 10, 2018 8:00 am

        We could debate till the next blue moon the relative benefits and hazards of introducing Hydrogen, diesel, steam, electric trenos and where would it get us?

        And anyways you and me both: we’re still coming from the same direction.

        What will never, ever compute with me, the greens dissonant solutions only cause more bloody problems, costing the earth and via imposition of taxation and by any stretch that’s just not the way to do it – someone needs to derail this green gravy train because from the network operators down to the guards, they’re running the country into the ground and insult to injury defrauding the nation, making a fortune – off my and yours backs.

  10. John F. Hultquist permalink
    June 9, 2018 4:02 pm

    . . . with some released as small puffs of steam above the train.

    Why vent pure H2O when the world is short of the stuff? — so I’ve read.
    Could the train have a clean tanker to collect the water?
    Further, how much water will be produced?
    “small puffs” Somehow I can’t visualize these.
    {I have a vision of old men playing cards and puffing on cigars and pipes.}
    So many questions.

  11. mikewaite permalink
    June 9, 2018 4:20 pm

    There are a number of areas where we have claimed to be “world leaders” , only when you turn round there is no one following .The most obvious is the supersonic passenger jet, which was found to be unflyable ,in supersonic mode, over land. It looks as if the superjumbo, A380, is going to join that list, that also includes the worlds first , and last , super prop passenger airliner , the Brabazon. The AGR nuclear technology ? And of course we are the world’s leaders in offshore wind technology – and much good that has been the last few weeks .
    I wish for once we would stop trying to be world leaders and just follow those people who clearly know what they are doing.

    • A C Osborn permalink
      June 10, 2018 11:05 am

      The ban of Concorde flying supersonic over land was purely political and mostly by the USA.
      US Fighter Jets do it all the time, just not over cities.
      Concorde was supersonic just west of our house every night, the faint double boom was it’s signature both coming and going.

    • tempestnut permalink
      June 10, 2018 9:21 pm

      The UK is world leading in a number of area’s but its pertinent to note that none are connected with government.

  12. Stonyground permalink
    June 9, 2018 5:04 pm

    Electrified railways are a much simpler solution to the alleged problem of emissions from trains. This hydrogen scheme simply relocates the emissions to a different place. Electric trains do the same with proven technology.

    “…instead of paying to constrain-off windmills during windy periods, their excess output can put to good use. /sarc.”

    Actually that might be something that would be worth exploring. Hydrogen has a fairly low energy density which I would have thought would make it unsuitable for powering vehicles. As a method of storing energy it surely has more promise than an impractically sized battery.

    • June 10, 2018 9:41 am

      The problem is that electrifying relatively lightly used regional train lines is not considered to be cost-effective i.e. it’s too expensive.

  13. It doesn't add up... permalink
    June 9, 2018 6:43 pm


  14. Silver Dynamite permalink
    June 9, 2018 9:15 pm

    I have an idea; wouldn’t it be more efficient to put tenders with coal and water, behind the locomotives, then someone could shovel the coal to heat a boiler, the steam could then power the locomotive which could pull a train.

  15. Gamecock permalink
    June 9, 2018 9:30 pm

    ‘puffs of steam above the train’

    What is the GREATEST greenhouse gas?

    That would be water vapor. Let’s add more!

    • John F. Hultquist permalink
      June 10, 2018 12:24 am

      Shhh! Don’t tell them until they have spent a bunch of money.

  16. Bitter@twisted permalink
    June 10, 2018 8:30 am

    Another crackpot “solution” to a nonexistent problem.
    Leading the world- in the stupidity stakes.

    • dave permalink
      June 10, 2018 8:52 am

      “…a nonexistent problem…”

      The RSS analysis of the “Brightness Temperature Anomalies Data” from Satellite Surveillance has now been updated to May 2018. It confirms UAH in showing a continuing drop – by 0.05 C – in “the global average” for the Lower Troposphere.

      The number for May of 2014 was + 0.44 C.

      The number for May of 2015 was + 0.48 C.

      The number for May of 2016 was + 0.70 C. *

      The number for May of 2017 was + 0.64 C. *

      The number for May of 2018 was +0. 41 C.

      * Aftermath of a strong El Nino.

      • dave permalink
        June 10, 2018 9:03 am

        BTW, the Sun continues to show minimal sunspot and magnetic activity.

        Nothing strange about that, of course, at this stage of the 11-year cycle.

        Just a reminder that the Sun’s activity is something to think about. There is a venerable theory that the next upswing will be very weak – with an effect on global climate.

  17. Mike H permalink
    June 10, 2018 10:24 am

    Mikewaite: quite agree. I’ve always liked the adage: “The early bird may get the worm but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese”!

  18. Mr Tony Stacey permalink
    June 10, 2018 11:30 am

    It would be cost effective if the electricity generated by wind turbines of a night time was used to reform the hydrogen, there by creating a virtuous cycle of energy production.

  19. It doesn't add up... permalink
    June 10, 2018 6:04 pm

    Puff the magic trainset ran on H2
    And travelled on suburban routes on the line from Waterloo
    A trainset lives forever, but not so green toys
    Specially when the silly things make such unpleasant noise
    One dark it happened, H2 blew up in style
    And Puff that magic trainset couldn’t do a mile
    Puff the magic trainset ran on H2
    And travelled on suburban routes on the line from Waterloo

    apols to Peter, Paul & Mary

  20. Rupert Wyndham permalink
    June 11, 2018 6:13 am

    Since, as a ghg, water vapour has several times the radiative potemtial of CO2, one wonders how replacing one with the other will help the putative problem of human induced climate change.

    • dave permalink
      June 11, 2018 7:33 am


      To be fair, the difference is that water can condense at normal temperatures while CO2 can not. The basic water cycle (hydrosphere -> atmosphere -> hydrosphere) is completed in a few days.

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