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ORNL unveils hydrogen-powered train engine with goal of reducing carbon emissions

By Shannon Smith, Teknovation Assistant Editor, PYA

In a world mostly powered by gas, researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) National Transportation Research Center are working to find other ways to power the way we move. On Wednesday, researchers unveiled their latest project in the decarbonization challenge – a hydrogen-powered train engine.

“It’s the start of this important effort in developing and deploying low- and zero-carbon fuel capabilities for the nation’s rail transportation industry,” said Xin Sun, Associate Laboratory Director for ORNL’s Energy Science and Technology Directorate.

This research and development prototype will be used to see if the rail industry can in fact be powered by hydrogen, and if so, can existing train engines be modified to handle a change in fuel type. The goal is to reduce CO2 emissions from the roughly 25,000 locomotives already in use in North America

“This is a single-cylinder engine, specifically built for research applications,” said Dean Edwards, Research and Development Lead for the project at ORNL. “But it uses production hardware, the same hardware that is out on the engines on the rails today. So this is not a scaled-down model engine, this is the real deal.”

The engine’s construction, research, and eventual implementation make up a joint project for ORNL, Argonne National Laboratory, and Wabtec, a global provider of equipment, systems, digital solutions, and value-added services in the transportation industry.

“Current trends indicate that rail and freight activity will more than double by 2050, leading to increased demand for sustainable transportation of people and goods,” said Jim Gamble, Vice President of Engine and Power Solutions Technology for Wabtec. “Wabtec is ready to continue to meet this demand through a suite of technologies including low-carbon fuel internal combustion engines.”

At a ribbon cutting Wednesday, Edwards explained the specs of the research engine.

“This single cylinder produces about 375 horsepower. So if you do the math, the 12-cylinder version of this engine would do about 404,500 horsepower. So there’s nothing small about this engine,” he said.

Working locomotives have about a 30-year lifespan, but researchers aren’t going to wait 30 years to replace existing engines with new ones.

“If we want to have an immediate near-term impact on the decarbonization of the rail sector, one of the things we need to consider is looking at retrofit applications, stuff that we can install on the existing fleet that will enable it to run on the new low carbon fuels,” said Edwards. “But then again, it needs to be flexible, because as we are building up this infrastructure across America, there will be areas that lag behind the world. The trains may go to a place where those fuels are not readily available at that time, so they need to be able to have the flexibility to also run on diesel fuel in those situations.

Researchers will start running the test engine solely on diesel fuel, and slowly add hydrogen fuel while removing diesel. Ideally, initial hydrogen-fuel engines would be on railways in the next five years.

Scientists are using Argonne’s high-performance computers to develop simulation software. This tool will help predict the behavior of combustion engines as operating conditions change and hardware is modified. Simulations help researchers understand the combustion process, which drives engine efficiency and reduces emissions.

The project is funded by the Vehicle Technologies Office under the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and Wabtec. In-kind contributions are provided by Wabtec and Convergent Science, Inc. The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration is also funding related research on the safe use of hydrogen in locomotive engines.

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