For forklift trucks, trains, shipping, aviation and space travel – hydrogen fuel, with the chemical formula H2, provides energy on a grand scale. Read Part 2 about the all-rounder.
Low-lift trucks, tractors and forklifts – worldwide, over 50,000 floor conveyor vehicles powered by fuel cells are in service. The technology is being pioneered by the US, where over 30,000 conveyor vehicles already run on hydrogen. Manufacturers such as Linde, Toyota and Still have been developing series-ready components and floor conveyor vehicles with fuel cells for years. Today many of their models are available in a hydrogen-powered version. Companies like Amazon and Walmart are gradually converting their fleets. Manufacturers such as BMW in Leipzig and Daimler in Düsseldorf are also using zero-emission fork-lifts in their factories. In intralogistics these hard workers are competing with floor conveyor vehicles with traditional lead-acid batteries and an increasing number with lithium-ion batteries, along with classical diesels. The advantages of fuel cells over battery power are their quicker refueling (only three minutes), better availability and no problems with costly peaks in the electricity demand. The technology works reliably both outdoors and indoors, and even in frozen goods warehouses at temperatures down to minus 30 C. There’s no need to replace the batteries and no potentially hazardous acid, so fuel cells are an especially safe option. Another advantage is that electric forklift trucks can easily be converted to hydrogen using plug & play technology.
The rail industry has been working on hydrogen-powered trains for 20 years. The China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation in Foshan city put the first fuel-cell street car into service several years ago. However, until now hydrogen trains like these have been the exception rather than the rule, and built only in small numbers or operating on limited routes. “Coradia iLint” is the name of the world’s first series train running on hydrogen. Engineers at the French railway manufacturer Alstom developed the hydrogen-powered loco based on a diesel power car. The only sounds made by the iLint are those from the wheels on the rails and the air resistance. The hydrogen trains can travel a good 1,000 kilometers on a single tank of hydrogen (440 kilograms) with a top speed of 140 km/h. It takes only 15 minutes to fill the hydrogen tank at a pressure of 350 bar. This makes the fuel-cell train’s performance comparable with that of a similar diesel train – but with far greater efficiency and zero carbon emissions.
Surplus energy is stored in batteries in the roof. Many countries, cities and municipalities are very interested in environmentally friendly fuel-cell technology. The H2 train is already in service in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria. Since September 2018 two trains have been plying routes on the Elbe-Weser network in Lower Saxony. According to Alstom, they have so far covered 100,000 kilometers and have an availability of 96 percent. Alstom obtains the necessary hydrogen from chemical plants where the element is a waste product from manufacturing processes. Until now. this hydrogen has often simply been flared.
The “Energy Observer” has been roaming the oceans since 2017. But she is more than just a boat. The catamaran provides inspiration and highlights solutions for producing energy from nature in a sustainable and non-damaging manner. It also tries out technologies that energy networks could use efficiently and on a larger scale in the future. To this end, the floating laboratory is trialing various systems during a six-year voyage lasting until 2022. During this time, it will call at over 100 ports in 50 countries. The stops are planned to generate publicity to raise awareness of topics such as renewable energy, biodiversity and mobility. The Energy Observer is self-sufficient in energy, with hydrogen at the heart of the system. The fuel is produced on-board from seawater that is desalinated twice in a 500-liter tank and then demineralized. The catamaran itself is around 30 meters long and has an electrolyzer on board that then splits the water into hydrogen and oxygen. The energy to do this comes from solar panels and 100 kWh of battery storage. The hydrogen is stored in three tanks at 350 bar. This enables the Energy Observer to hold up to 62 kilograms of hydrogen. The ship’s outer surface is almost completely covered with solar panels. The waste heat from the electrolyzer is used to heat the cabin and provide hot water. Since the beginning of 2020, the catamaran has been sailing the seas using a Toyota-fuel cell drive. The system comes from the Mirai and was adapted especially for maritime application. The boat is also propelled by two wind turbines and a sail can be hoisted. Then the old racing catamaran really picks up speed.
Aviation will have to get much greener. So… could long-haul airplanes fly on hydrogen? In 1988 a group of Soviet engineers presented a three-engine Tupolev Tu-154 whose right engine ran on hydrogen. It flew successfully, but the problem with hydrogen is storage. The fuel takes up space on board an aircraft and the system of tanks and pumps is heavy. Hydrogen has an energy density three times that of kerosene and therefore the fuel needed to supply a certain amount of energy weighs one third as much as kerosene. Yet there’s a catch. Gaseous hydrogen takes up far too much space to be carried on planes. Airbus is planning to bring a passenger aircraft onto the market by 2035, which will be totally hydrogen-powered and therefore fully carbon-neutral. The hydrogen fuel is to be carried on board. Either it will be combusted in a modified gas turbine or it will react with oxygen in a fuel cell to produce current that drives electric motors.
In fact Europe’s leading aircraft manufacturer is working on three concepts for climate-friendly flight. One of them is a turboprop machine for carrying 100 passengers up to 1,000 kilometers. The second is a turbofan design capable of transporting 200 passengers more than 3,700 kilometers. In both of these designs, the hydrogen would be carried in the rear third of the aircraft. This requires either cylindrical or spherical tanks, because hydrogen has to be compressed at high pressure so that a usable quantity can be taken on board. The third concept is a revolutionary “blended wing-body design” in which the wide aircraft body appears to consist solely of a wing. This model offers the best aerodynamics for integrating the hydrogen tanks.
“Houston… we’ve had a problem here.” The Apollo 13 space mission almost ended in disaster in April 1970. An oxygen tank exploded on-board – back then a fuel cell was used to power the rocket’s electronics. Fifty years later, the technology could make history again: the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and Toyota are working on the Lunar Cruiser with fuel-cell drive. The new lunar rover should be able to travel more than 10,000 kilometers on the Moon, powered by hydrogen carried in tanks. The powertrain is based on fuel-cell technology that Toyota uses in its Mirai here on Earth. Fold-out solar panels will provide additional electricity. The six-wheeled rover will be 6 meters long, 5.2 meters wide and 3.8 meters high. It will have 13 cubic meters of pressurized living space for two astronauts and be able to accommodate two more passengers in an emergency. Development is scheduled for completion by 2027. Two years later the rover should be landing on the Moon. The Japanese want to cooperate with NASA to make this a reality.
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