Riding the green train

By | Science & Technology
China's Qingdao Sifang Company recently rolled out a new hydrogen-powered tram, the first of its kind in the world. Credit@Xinhua

The world’s first hydrogen-powered tram rolled off the assembly line this month in Qingdao, Shandong Province. Sifang Company, a subsidiary of China South Rail Corporation (CSR), developed the vehicle making China the only country in the world to have mastered hydrogen fuel cell technology for trams.

Chinese officials left many environmental parties surprised at their open awareness of the impacts that their greenhouse gas emissions appear to be having on the global climate. They are investing a considerable sum of money into green energy and was even the 2013 world leader in renewable energy production. For instance, China generate more wind power than any other country in the world, contributing to almost 30% of global investment in clean energy. In a similar vein, China is now continuing to push their clean energy agenda further with hydrogen-powered technology. Although hydrogen fuel cells have been in development for a while, and in some cases even being used, China is the first country to use the technology successfully in trams.

The glossy, orange locomotive has a modest top speed of 43 miles per hour (around 70 kilometres per hour). However, what the tram leaves behind is more significant than its speed: water. The tram is powered by hydrogen via on-board fuel cells. “It took two years for Sifang to solve key technological problems, with the help of research institutions,” said Chief Engineer Liang Jianying, according to the Xinhua news agency. Refueling reportedly takes only three minutes and the three-car tram is able to carry up to 380 passengers.

Hydrogen is the most basic of all Earth’s elements, made of a single proton and a single electron. As such, hydrogen is very abundant, although it is usually found combined with other elements like oxygen in the form of water. Separating hydrogen from its companion elements may take a significant amount of work, however it produces a powerful and clean source of energy.

There are a number of advantages to hydrogen-powered technology compared to the burning of fossil fuels for energy. As mentioned, hydrogen is a clean source of energy with water being its only emission – it is virtually of free greenhouse gases that contribute to manmade global climate change. In addition, Liang said, “The average distance of tramcar lines in China is about 15 km [just over 9 miles], which means one refill for our tram is enough for three round trips,” meaning the overall running costs may be greatly reduced. Importantly, since the temperature of the fuel cell reaction is controlled at 100 degrees Celsius, the tram’s emissions are nitrogen oxide-free. Reducing the pollutants associated with fossil fuel emission might also reduce the rate of respiratory conditions caused by China’s industrial smog, which may indicate health benefits of over GBP 1 billion as well as saving motorists money in fuel costs.

Foshan, in China’s Guangdong province, might be one of the first cities to adopt the new technology. Officials predict that building of the hydrogen-powered trams may start later this year. Foshan are committed to clean energy and are also aiming to partner with SAIC Motor, China’s largest car manufacturer, to produce parts for hydrogen-fuel cell cars. The only car company to announce the release of a hydrogen-powered car has been Toyota and the vehicle is expected to go on sale later this year in the US.

China’s hydrogen-powered future appears to begin with trams rather than cars. Nevertheless, it is an important, viable step towards meeting its pressing need for green transportation. With the appropriate level of infrastructure spending, consumers in China might see a shift to green vehicles within a decade.

How else might hydrogen fuel technology productively contribute to greener emissions?

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