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Gaurav Agnihotri

Gaurav Agnihotri

Gaurav Agnihotri, a Mechanical engineer and an MBA -Marketing from ICFAI (Institute of Chartered Financial Accountants), Mumbai, is a result oriented and a business focused…

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Can Fuel Cells Help Clean Up China’s Air?

Rising air pollution is easily one of the biggest challenges that China is facing today. A U.S. report published this year stated that around 4,000 people were dying every day in China due to air pollution. This problem becomes even worse during the winter season when the Chinese start burning coal to heat their homes. In addition, industrial pollution and carbon emissions from motor vehicles add further to rising air pollution levels in the world’s most populous country.

The Chinese city of Shenyang has been one of the hardest hit, where the quality of air has now reached beyond hazardous levels. On Sunday, the level of poisonous airborne particles (known as PM 2.5) in Shenyang was almost 500 times more than the normal limit of 25. In fact, the pollution levels recorded in Shenyang on Sunday November 8, 2015 were the highest ever recorded in China since the country started monitoring its air quality in the year 2013. There is little doubt that China now needs to find innovative ways to fight its growing air pollution problem.

An Innovative Solution To This Problem

The hydrogen fuel cell is a device that produces electricity and water by consuming hydrogen through an electrochemical (and a pollution free) process. With its growing air quality issues and rising demand for public transportation, hydrogen fuel cell tech could find many takers in China. Related: Venezuela Liquidating Assets As Economic Crisis Worsens

Most of us have already heard of popular fuel cell vehicles like Toyota Myrai, but few know about the fuel cell powered railway engines and trams that exist today. In an interesting recent development, China’s Tangshan Railway Vehicle Co (TRC) and Canada’s Ballard Power Systems signed a $2.2 million definitive agreement on November 1 to create fuel cell-powered Trams. The two companies are planning to introduce a prototype by next year that would be powered by a 200kw fuel cell manufactured by Ballard Power Systems, which would have an estimated operating lifetime of 20,000 hours.

How expensive is fuel cell technology for rail transport?

Hydrogen fuel cell technology could be quite suited for the rail industry as it has the potential to replace the massive cost of setting up of new electric railway lines (that cost around $12 million per mile n U.S.) and replacing the CO2 emitting diesel engines. However, the cost of hydrogen fuel cells and the cost of setting up hydrogen refueling stations at every stop are two very important considerations. With the average cost of hydrogen fuel cells being around $1,000 per kilowatt of generated power, the initial cost of setting up a ‘Hydrail’ network could be pretty high. Related: Oman Calls OPEC To Action, Doesn’t Buy Saudis Strategy Anymore

However, despite these obstacles, the fuel cell market is growing at a rather impressive pace.

In 2014, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that, with the shipment of around 50,000 fuel cells, the market for hydrogen fuel cells almost doubled to $2.2 billion. With the potential of completely removing the high manufacturing costs of conventional rail transport lines along with reduced emission levels, we could witness a global adoption of this technology in the coming decade. It needs to be noted that companies like Alstom, Bombardier, ABB, Siemens, Mitsubishi, Toshiba and Hitachi have already shown interest in producing engines powered by fuel cell technology.

How drastic would the reduction in emissions be?

“The environmental advantage of hydrogen at the point of use is significant compared to diesel, as only water is emitted as exhaust gas, providing significantly lower well-to-wheel GHG emissions than both diesel and electric power in many countries," said Andreas Hoffritcher of University of Birmingham. Related: How Shale Oil Will Survive The Crude Carnage

 

Image Source: RailFreightPortal

(Click to enlarge)

Trains produce significantly less CO2 emissions when compared to vehicles. Also, a hydrogen powered train or a tram would produce water and around 6.85 grams of greenhouse gases per mega joule of LHV when compared to 22 pounds of GHG from one gallon of gasoline, thereby significantly reducing overall emission levels.

With rising demand for public transportation, the (possible) introduction of fuel cell trams by TRC in the near future could be a major step by China towards tackling its rising pollution levels. However, a lot depends upon the performance of its prototype.

By Gaurav Agnihotri of Oilprice.com

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