The transportation sector is one of the largest consumers of energy, but rail transport is the most energy-efficient form of land transport. In contrast to trucks, one engine does not pull just one- but multi-wagon trains over hundreds of miles. An ongoing pioneering project is the development of a fuel cell switcher locomotive for railroad switch yards. The locomotive is one of these large monsters, 127 t, that we all know from the long trains they pull and the awful noise they make when they approach a level crossing of the generally pre-deluge railroad system of
the USA. A switcher locomotive is used for short distance operations in switch yards, but it is entirely emission free in contrast to the traditional diesel-electric engines. It is now in practical testing in a BNSF Railway switch yard in Southern California, and on military bases.
The test locomotive uses the chassis of a retired traditional diesel-electric engine. It is equipped with two hydrogen fuel cells of the Canadian Ballard Power Systems, which produce the electric power for a 300 kW motor. The fuel cells normally put out a net power of 250 kW which suffices for normal switching operations. The lead accumulators are capable of a peak output of 1.1 MW for several minutes. Traditional diesel-electric switcher engines have from 600 kW to 1000 kW power drives, but they are idling most of the time putting out a lot of CO2.
The 70 kg hydrogen for the fuel cells are stored in round tanks above the lead accumulators, which occupy almost half of the engine’s superstructure. One mol of hydrogen, H2, has a mass of 2 g and occupies a volume of 22 liters. So we are talking about 770 m3 of hydrogen at STP (standard temperature and pressure) that has to be accommodated by the storage tanks. Evidently this volume must be compressed to a manageable size. But such a locomotive has a lot of room, and can carry a lot of weight. The fuel lasts for 8 to 10 hours. The fuel cells have to take the usual shocks that occur during switching. Therefore they are mounted in a moveable frame. Below them is a converter for 600 V to 850 V DC.
The design is based on experiences with Citaro hybrid busses of Mercedes Benz which since 2003 have accumulated 2 million km in ten European cities. Also experiences with a fuel cell equipped mining locomotive were used. The Department of Defense is interested in using the fuel cell technology in a mobile power plant that could serve in natural disaster situations.
The locomotive is the largest American land vehicle powered by
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fuel cells. The challenges that had to be faced were system layout, hydrogen storage, heat dissipation and shock protection.
(VDI, 7/Aug/ 09, wop;