WTFuel cell technology?

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

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.

3 thoughts on “WTFuel cell technology?”

  1. Why are we so far behind the rest of the world in transit? Look no further than the politicians and their (temporary and changing) interests and funding.

  2. Okay, an overhead wire system..
    .. more or less like our street cars, or past trolleys buses that used to run up and down Weston Road, long ago.

    Electricity, good.
    Fossil fuels, bad.

    But, no matter the electrification method for any given system, the electricity generated for the system comes from where?

    A power plant?

    A power station using what?
    Heat engines fuelled by what – heat combustion or nuclear fission fuels?

    Now, kinetic would be ideal..
    ..if it were reliably available from flowing water or wind.

    Nice if we had more sunshine.

    Or geothermal.

    What of the initial cost of building this – rail lines, vehicles & the overhead electrical system.

    And, what about the other draw backs – heights of poles & wires, storms & winter weather issues and shared route problems, generally.

    Plus, in some of the other links provided, they noted that distances for some of these rail lines in Europe are shorter than they’d be in our world. And, consequently maybe easier to build and maintain in those parts of the world?

    In the case of the Eglinton Crosstown system and the westbound proposal, I could see it being useful where there’d be flood plain areas, perhaps like the Black Creek & Humber valley stretch where you may need to work above ground because of water tables.

    I don’t know.. ain’t gonna be pretty, that’s for sure.

    Bring on the debates & arguments, I guess.

    This is going to get heated..
    ..and too bad we can’t bottle & store that energy.

  3. Surprisingly, less than 15% of our electricity supply in Ontario comes from fossil fuel sources. It would be greener to use overhead lines rather than fuel cells.
    IMHO battery technology will be the way to go if catenaries are undesirable. Charge up the train batteries using cheap overnight power and run them during the day.

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