Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Hydrogen Fuel Cells In Action

Question: Why would the US Departments of Defense and Energy, the government of Japan, and the National Automotive Center, in Warren Michigan, all join together to commission a 1.2 megawatt hydrogen-fuel-cell locomotive? Answer:

“The army is interested in fuel-cell locomotives because they can serve as mobile backup power supplies for military bases,” says Arnold R. Miller, president of Vehicle Projects. “If you have this fuel-cell locomotive, rated for 1.2 megawatts,” he said, “it will serve its primary role as a switch engine in military rail yards. But in the event of an attack on a base, a failure of the grid, or some natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, you could drive it to wherever you need it, hook it up, and provide enough power for about 1000 homes or to keep people who are dependent on respirators or dialysis machines alive.”
Pretty cool, huh? While most of us are focused on whether there are advances in alternative fuels for our cars, there are nifty advances in power for other methods of transportation. IEEE Spectrum reports on fuel cell developments aimed toward "small rail ­systems at mines, factories, and military bases; and replacing diesel-electric locomotives on suburban lines with fuel-cell-driven electric motors." Still pie-in-the-sky, you say? Well, they're already doing it:

Vehicle Projects, spun out of the Colorado School of Mines, in Golden, is recognized as the first company to have built a fuel-cell locomotive. Its earlier 3.6-metric-ton, 17-kilowatt hydrogen-powered mine locomotive—for which Nuvera also supplied PEM fuel cell stacks—was completed in 2002 and demonstrated in a working mine in Ontario [see photo, “Little Workhorse”]. “We retrofitted a battery-powered locomotive, because it already had an electric drive,” says Miller.

Miller says that the mine locomotive served as a proof of concept for all that needs to be verified in a fuel-cell vehicle. Is it safe? Can you easily and regularly refuel the vehicle? Does it deliver enough power for industrial, commercial, and commuter applications? Compared with the battery-powered locomotive it replaced, he says, “it had twice the power and could be refueled with hydrogen in 30 to 45 minutes, as opposed to 8 hours.”

Sounds like progress to me.