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Rolls-Royce, Porterbrook to investigate potential for synthetic & net zero fuels in fuel cells and engines for rail decarbonization

Rolls-Royce is teaming up with UK rail rolling stock owner and asset manager Porterbrook to identify and develop technological innovations to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality across the rail network. The two companies, who have signed a memorandum of understanding, will investigate the potential for the use of synthetic and net zero fuels, including hydrogen, both in fuel cells and internal combustion engines.

Building on their recent success of jointly introducing hybrid battery-diesel railcars into passenger service (earlier post), the two companies will also explore the potential for advanced hybridization.

The relationship also includes considering the role of the wider rail ecosystem in decarbonization, including fuel chain supply, infrastructure and operational models that can aid innovation and the transition to net zero.

The UK’s railway accounts for approximately 1% of all domestic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The Government’s ambition is to remove all diesel-only trains—both passenger and freight—from the network by 2040 and achieve a net zero rail network by 2050.

The UK Government has identified a number of different routes to this target including alternative forms of power such as hydrogen, fuel cells, batteries, hybrid-electric and sustainable fuels.

Rolls-Royce, through its Power Systems business, has decades of experience in providing drive solutions for rail with its mtu-branded engines in service across five continents. The company has been developing new sustainable solutions including the hybrid-electric mtu Hybrid PowerPack for rail use. This technology recently entered commercial service in the UK with Chiltern Railways on HybridFLEX trains, supplied by Porterbrook, which reduce CO2 emissions by up to 25%.

Power Systems is already developing a range of engines for power generation which can run on hydrogen and is working on fuel cells to be used as reliable power supply in ships and heavy-duty off-highway vehicles.

Last year, Power Systems committed to release new generations of its most popular diesel engines for use with sustainable fuels by 2023; this includes mtu Series 4000 engines which are today used in locomotives operating in conditions as varied as Siberia and the Australian outback. From next year it plans to have conversion kits available which enable mtu Series 4000 engines to run on 100% hydrogen.

Porterbrook owns almost a quarter of the UK national passenger rail fleet and currently has around 4,000 vehicles on lease or on order. The business has an established reputation for delivering new technologies, such as battery, hybrid and hydrogen powered trains. Alongside the HybridFLEX and other hybrid trains in commercial service, the company has developed HydroFLEX, the first hydrogen-powered train to run on the UK’s mainline network. It can operate under electric, battery and hydrogen power, making it the world’s first ‘tri-mode’ train.



I do not believe that you need hydrogen for most applications. You probably need less than 200 kW average per car. So if you had a 600 kWhr battery, you could run at least 3 hours and could have short overhead charging sections if more energy is required. Also most major lines are already electrified and it is common to have have the less traveled lines start or end at a major destination that is electrified.

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