Fuel Cell Technology Turn Around?

Readers may remember a couple of  WestonWeb articles here and here  skewering the fuel-cell technology proposal championed by former Minister of Transportation, Steven Del Duca. Mr. Del Duca for some reason had fallen in love with fuel cell technology and wanted to see if it could be used instead of catenary (overhead) power lines when diesel trains such a GO and UP Express are replaced. A trial budget to check feasibility was originally set at $200,000, now it’s expanded to $3 million.

Now that the Liberal government has been given its marching orders, (precisely for stupidity like this) it will be interesting to see the reaction of Doug Ford to  spending millions on this complete waste of money. Already, one Metrolinx Board member and CEO Phil Verster are publicly distancing themselves from the boondoggle. Look for more people at Metrolinx to claim they always thought it was a very bad idea.

Here’s a flow chart comparison of the two technologies. (Click to enlarge)

It would be far better for Metrolinx to investigate battery technology for powering trains as Bombardier is doing in the U.K.. The cost savings could be considerable in the long run. It would also eliminate the need to build an extensive catenary wiring network which is expensive to build and maintain.

WTFuel cell technology?

Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca announcing interest in fuel cell technology in June 2017.
From urbantoronto.ca

The Kitchener GO Line that runs through Weston / Mount Dennis will eventually be electrified. The Ontario Government recently announced through Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca that it would be spending ‘up to $200,000’ to study  alternatives to GO train electrification. A Mississauga company, Hydrogenics has managed to persuade the Minister that fuel cells may be the way to go instead of using overhead wires and electric trains.

How would it work? Hydrogen gas (yes, the gas used in the Hindenburg airship) would be produced by applying an electric current to water in a process known as electrolysis. The process is touted as green but unfortunately, electrolysis is notoriously inefficient so hydrogen produced for large projects such as a fleet of trains is manufactured from fossil fuels such as oil or natural gas – releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide and therefore not green at all.

Once hydrogen is made, problems continue. Storing it is hard. It must be compressed, cooled to a liquid or stored chemically – all of which are costly in terms of energy. Once stored, it must be transported to the trains.

The trains then would generate electricity from the hydrogen through the use of an on-board fuel cell of the type made by Hydrogenics. That means they would have a fuel cell electricity generator and a propulsion unit. Electric trains draw their current from overhead wires and only need a propulsion unit.

Surprisingly, adding to the negatives, a litre of gasoline contains about 64% more hydrogen than pure liquid hydrogen itself – yes, the hydrogen that was probably extracted at great cost from gasoline or diesel fuel.

Anyone who has been to Europe or ridden on Amtrak would know that electric trains there use overhead wires (called catenaries – in use since 1889) to supply power. The Eglinton Crosstown line opening in 2021 will use catenaries. It’s the current state of the art.

For some reason, either Mr. Del Duca wants to throw a $200,000 present to a company in the Liberal riding of Mississauga – Brampton South or he’s been completely misled about basic physics. Either scenario makes one wonder about the minister’s competence.

This video from Elon Musk sums up the inefficiencies and difficulties involved in getting hydrogen fuel cell technology to work. Yes, Mr. Musk has an axe to grind (battery technology) but his points are valid.

On the Ministry of Transportation’s GO Transit site, fuel cell technology is touted as electrification since the fuel cells generate electricity that drives the trains. If that’s the case, diesel trains can also be called electric since diesel engines generate electricity that drives the trains. Furthermore, since fuel cells are likely to need fossil fuels to provide the hydrogen, maybe we should call a conversion to fuel cell technology, fossilization.

Battery Power for UP Express?

The Proterra electric bus.

As reported here earlier this week, Metrolinx is looking at fuel cell technology to provide power for its trains (including UP Express) rather than the current polluting diesel or the already announced GO Train electrification using overhead catenary wires which will also power the Eglinton Crosstown.

Fuel cell technology has been in the news for decades but has yet to demonstrate its long vaunted potential. Hydrogen is the fuel and passes over cells combining with oxygen to directly produce electric power. Since only hydrogen and oxygen are involved, the exhaust is pure water. Companies like Ballard Power have been working on the idea for decades but difficulties include manufacturing the hydrogen (using purified water and electricity), transporting the highly flammable hydrogen gas safely to vehicles and installing fuelling stations where needed.

Exciting news out of Indiana yesterday should give the people at Metrolinx an alternative to fuel cells and catenary wires – battery technology. A battery powered bus has been able to travel 1700 km on a single charge. This rapidly improving technology is sufficiently advanced that it will provide emergency power from a site in Mount Dennis to the Eglinton Crosstown (instead of a generating station). Now it appears that batteries could be the solution to powering commuter transit.

The seven UP Express trains each travel under 900 km daily (it’s 24 km between Union and Pearson) and could charge for the 10 minutes each trip while they wait for passengers at either end. When the service stops between 1:00 am and 5:00 am daily, the trains could fully recharge using cheap electricity.

Fuel cells were partly, a response to poor battery technology. Now they appear to have been sidelined as battery storage continues to improve.

This is what Metrolinx should be investigating.