To enable the transition to a net-zero emission economy, railway companies are increasingly turning to alternative fuels to power their passenger and freight locomotives. Hydrogen fuel cells, in particular, have the potential to accelerate the decarbonization of Canada's rail sector.
As part of a new collaborative R&D project, which began in 2022, experts from the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) are working with teams from Transport Canada (TC) and the University of British Colombia (UBC), to evaluate the gaps associated with deploying hydrogen locomotives, also known as "hydrail," and battery-powered locomotives.
The project, which aligns with the Government of Canada's Emission Reduction Plan, aims to identify, assess and mitigate the potential risks of using hydrogen in rail operations, while also supporting the development of best practices, codes and standards to help industry adopt this new technology.
"We are thrilled to lead this collaborative project that will support the Canadian rail industry in adopting new ways to power rail vehicles with lower emission technologies," says Eddy Zuppel, Program Leader of the NRC's Clean and Energy-Efficient Transportation program. "Our work with Transport Canada and the University of British Columbia will be fundamental to advance the implementation of a zero emission rail system in Canada," Zuppel adds.
The project team will carry-out the project in 2 phases and focus on a hydrogen-powered locomotive operating in a rail yard. In phase 1, the NRC and TC researchers will identify potential safety and operational hazards associated with hydrail, and propose potential mitigations. In phase 2, the NRC will apply phase 1 findings on a full-scale hydrail locomotive prototype developed by researchers from UBC Okanagan's School of Engineering, in order to assess the 'real world' risks, and the effectiveness of proposed mitigation solutions.
According to Gordon Lovegrove, associate professor at UBC's School of Engineering, this research is an important step towards the transformation of Canada's rail sector. "Our country has such a rich rail history, and sustainable rail is the next chapter and really a re-emergence of Canada's rail industry," Lovegrove says. "Ensuring hydrogen is stored safely and evaluating safety risks will be at the heart of Canada's future hydrail systems," adds Joshua Brinkerhoff, associate professor of mechanical engineering at UBC who specializes in hydrogen storage systems.
The project is expected to help establish a framework for designing and operating fuel-cell locomotives that offer the same safety protection to their conventional equivalents. This collaborative R&D project will provide robust guidance to regulators and the rail industry about best practices for installing hydrogen and battery equipment in a safe and secure manner.