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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Study of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology for Rail Propulsion and Review of Relevant Industry Standards

Document Series
Technical Reports
Federal Railroad Administration
Report Number
Subject Rolling Stock
Hydrogen, alternative fuel, fuel cell, rail car, propulsion, rail, rolling stock, railroad

Alternatives to conventional diesel electric propulsion are currently of interest to rail operators. In the U.S., smaller railroads have implemented natural gas and other railroads are exploring hydrogen technology as a cleaner alternative to diesel. Diesel, battery, hydrogen fuel cell, or track electrification all have trade-offs for operations, economics, safety, and public acceptability. A framework to compare different technologies for specific applications is useful to optimize the desired results. Standards from the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and other industry best practices were reviewed for applicability with hydrogen fuel cell technology. Some technical gaps relate to the physical properties of hydrogen, such as embrittlement of metals, invisible flames, and low liquid temperatures. A reassessment of material selection, leak/flame detection, and thermal insulation methods is required. Hydrogen is less dense and diffuses more easily than natural gas, and liquid hydrogen is colder than liquefied natural gas. Different densities between natural gas and hydrogen require modifications to tank designs and flow rates. Leaked hydrogen will rise rather than pool on the ground like diesel, requiring a modification to the location of hydrogen tanks on rolling stock. Finally, the vibration and shock experienced in the rail environment is higher than light-duty vehicles and stationary applications for which current fuel cell technology has been developed, requiring a modification in tank design requirements and testing.

Last updated: Monday, June 7, 2021