Germany is well known for its ambitious aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Since 1990, emission rates have fallen across many of the country’s major industrial sectors. Household reductions have also been impressive. Only the agriculture and transportation sectors have yet to make major reductions, with the latter’s figures being particularly disappointing; the transportation industry’s greenhouse gas emissions fell by a whopping 2 percent over a period of twenty-five years.
Confirmed in 2007 prior to the UN climate summit of 2015, Germany’s decade-old climate targets have already led to an increase in investments in renewable power technologies. So far, the country’s focus has been on wind, solar and biomass technologies, with hydropower investments generally trailing behind. More recently in 2016, the German government came to an agreement on new 2050 climate goals. Some adjustments were made on previous climate targets, such as the original 40 percent emissions reduction goal set for 2020.
To tackle the transportation industry’s emissions problems, new cars will fall under European-level emissions limit regulations. The government has also put an emphasis on the electrification of new cars, as well as the importance of switching to renewable electricity sources and biofuels. The effects of these new targets have undoubtedly begun to ripple across industries and households, affecting everybody and everything from students training to become an Electronics Technician via online technology courses, to the most well-known CEOs of major auto manufacturing companies.
Hydrogen-Trains: A World First
Given its ambitious political and ecological aims, it comes as no surprise that Germany is the first country to announce that it will be bringing the world’s first “zero-emission” hydrogen-powered passenger trains to the tracks over the next twelve months. The Coradia iLint low-floor passenger trains make use of hydrogen fuel cells to create electricity, but otherwise are equipped with much of the same equipment as the country’s existing 4,000 diesel-fuel trains.
Produced by Alstom, a French company, the new hydrogen-powered trains were just introduced in August 2016 at the Berlin InnoTrans trade show. They are considered “no-emissions” because the train’s electricity is produced when hydrogen is mixed with oxygen in the large hydrogen fuel cells that sit on top of the train. Steam and water are the only direct emissions. The electricity then charges the massive lithium-ion batteries used to power the train, and unused energy can be saved to be for a later time.
The first 14 hydrogen-powered trains have been ordered by the Lower Saxony state, located in northwestern Germany. The state boasts several cities, and its capital city Hanover is the second largest in the country, with over 1.7 million inhabitants. The hope is that Alstom’s hydrogen-powered trains, which can carry as many as 300 passengers at a time, will be able to successfully begin operating as early as 2018, following tests later this year.
The iLint can travel nearly 800 km a day, hitting speeds of up to 150 km an hour. In addition to being emissions-free, the train is also practically noise-free compared to regular trains. Noise pollution will also be reduced, as the only sound is produced by the train’s wheels and air resistance. It is said to produce 60 percent less noise than traditional diesel trains.
Preparing for the Future
If it all sounds too good to be true, that’s because it partially is – for now. Hydrogen is not a natural element, and it can take a good deal of electricity to produce it by electrolysis, as in the case of the iLint. Furthermore, the electricity used for the purposes of electrolysis is not as of yet entirely powered by an emissions-free grid. As such, while the train itself may not directly produce greenhouse gas emissions, the technology behind it still has an indirect carbon footprint that can be worse than that of diesel trains.
However, if investments are being made in hydrogen-powered trains, it may be because Germany and Alstom are in it for the long game. As the country continues to forge a path towards producing most of its electricity via carbon-free, renewable methods, ultimately their hydrogen-powered trains too would leave next to no direct or indirect carbon footprint behind.
Of course, that’s in the future, and this is now. If Germany and the rest of the world wants that true emissions-free day to come, they must continue to invest in the technological advancements, the appropriate governmental policies, and educational programs to foster the brightest minds capable of making plans a reality. From local politicians to Nobel-prize winners, the most junior electromechanical technician to the most powerful CEO, efforts must be pooled in order to bring hydrogen-powered trains and other related technologies to a state where they can be truly considered emissions-free.
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