Russia Developing Hydrogen Powered Railway Locomotives

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Op/Ed by Chris Devonshire-Ellis 

The advent of new technologies in transport has tended to concentrate on autos and the new technologies surrounding electric vehicles. However, as the world moves on from transport dominated for over 100 years by the oil industry, newer forms of power are starting to come onstream.

One of these is hydrogen power. While technical issues have prevented hydrogen powered cars being developed – manufacturers have toyed with the idea, with three models reaching the market – they have instead preferred to develop EV’s due to issues concerning the miniaturization of hydrogen fuel cells and refill stations. Instead, the technology is being utilized in the heavier duty transportation industry, where Russia, with the world’s largest gas reserves, is at the forefront of hydrogen technology. With the world’s third largest rail network and fourth most used tracks by volume, it makes sense to apply the technology to rail.

(In comparison, according to the International Union of Railways, the United States currently has the world’s largest rail network by km, yet is tenth globally in usage, while China has the world’s second largest rail network and is first in using it).

That Russa network is also growing and becoming better integrated with China’s despite the differing gauges. Both China and Russia export locomotive equipment and tracks, and are set on developing rail networks throughout Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa. To do this, an inexpensive and readly available fuel source and technology is required – step forward Russian engineering.

Russian Railways, Yekaterinburg’s Sinara Group and Rusnano are developing hydrogen freight locomotives, signing a cooperation agreement this month on the development of mainline and shunting hydrogen locomotives for freight traffic. The new locomotives will use power plants based on electrochemical hydrogen fuel cells in combination with lithium-ion batteries, informs Railway Supply magazine.

According to the agreement, Russian Railways will be a potential customer of the new locomotives, Sinara Transport Machines (STM) will be the general contractor, and Rusnano and its subsidiaries will act as a co-contractor for the creation of hydrogen fuel cells and energy storage systems. based on lithium-ion batteries and other innovative technological solutions.

The three parties will conduct comprehensive research, development and design work, a comprehensive analysis of the necessary infrastructure, the development of technical requirements for a main-line freight locomotive, as well as several other activities. They are also interested in developing mutually beneficial cooperation on the development of shunting diesel locomotives with a hybrid power plant based on hydrogen fuel cells and domestically produced energy storage systems.

Oleg Belozerov, General Director of Russian Railways stated that “Russian Railways continues to implement energy efficiency projects to protect the environment, and from 2025 intends to purchase “only electric locomotives, as well as locomotives operating on alternative energy sources, such as natural gas, bio-fuels and hydrogen.”

According to Dmitry Pumpyansky, President of the Sinara Group of Companies, pilot development of mainline and shunting hydrogen diesel locomotives can be created in 2023–2024.

In 2019, the company, together with Russian Railways and TMH, agreed to develop a hybrid shunting diesel locomotive on lithium-ion batteries, designed for shunting operations at stations in large cities. The agreement provided for the delivery of 131 such locomotives within 6 years after the first locomotive was received.

Rusnano and Italy’s Enel have also discussed a joint project for the production of green hydrogen, which will create the first green hydrogen production in Russia at a wind farm in the Murmansk region.

This is the second agreement to develop hydrogen rail vehicles in Russia. In April, TMH and the Rusatom State Corporation signed an agreement on cooperation in the development of hydrogen fuel cell trains.

The development of eco-friendly transport is a key feature of this technology as rail freight between China and Europe via Russia continues to grow at a rapid pace. Russian trans-continental rail freight doubled in 2020 and European freight operators are reporting a doubling again of China-EU freight in 2021. These technologies are also less expensive than diesel or electrification, solving a problem in converting current non-electrified routes still in use across much of Asia and Central Asia, meaning this technology is likely to be placed at the forefront of Belt & Road passenger and freight usage throughout the world.

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