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Oak Ridge, Argonne collaborate with Wabtec on hydrogen-powered trains to decarbonize rail industry

Researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) will work with Wabtec, a leading manufacturer of freight locomotives, to develop the hardware and control strategies for a single-cylinder, dual-fuel engine to demonstrate the viability of using alternative fuels for locomotives.

The research focuses on zero-carbon hydrogen and other low-carbon fuels as viable alternatives to diesel for the rail industry. The team’s goal is to reduce carbon emissions from the roughly 25,000 locomotives already in use in North America.


Researchers from the multidisciplinary team kicked off the project and celebrated the installation of rail technology company Wabtec’s single-cylinder dual-fuel locomotive engine in the National Transportation Research Center, a DOE-designated user facility located at ORNL, during an event on 9 November.

Both laboratories have entered into cooperative research and development agreements with Wabtec, a leading manufacturer of freight locomotives. The Argonne and Wabtec agreement also includes Convergent Science, Inc., a software developer. The project will run for four years.

Hydrogen as fuel has many advantages, but locomotive engines must be modified to ensure safe, efficient and clean operation. The team will develop hardware and control strategies for the engine, which will run on hydrogen and diesel fuel to demonstrate the viability of using alternative fuels.

Josh Pihl, an ORNL distinguished researcher and group leader for applied catalysis and emissions research said the project aligns with the goals of DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Office to use low-carbon fuels in hard-to-electrify transportation sectors.

While electrifying vehicles is an effective strategy in reducing carbon emissions from some parts of the transportation sector, railways are considered more difficult because of the high cost of building a single coordinated electrified rail system across North America. Each year, the North American rail fleet emits approximately 87.6 billion pounds of carbon dioxide.

To reduce carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050, we must make dramatic improvements in energy efficiency and emissions in the overall transportation system, including railways. Hydrogen has been used in light-duty combustion engines. However, hydrogen is a newer area of research in railway applications.

—Muhsin Ameen, Argonne senior research scientist

The research team is developing combustion technology to power the next generation of trains with up to 100% hydrogen and other low-carbon fuels. The team’s goal is to design train engines that will deliver the same power, range and cost-effectiveness as current diesel technology.

In the project’s first phase, the ORNL team will work on hardware changes for retrofitting locomotives. Its goal is to reduce CO2 emissions from the roughly 25,000 locomotives already in use in North America. Locomotives have a service life of more than 30 years, so replacing the entire fleet would take decades.

During the second phase of the project, ORNL and Wabtec will continue to alter the engine hardware to increase the amount of hydrogen that can be used. The team aims to replace completely diesel with hydrogen or low-carbon fuels in new locomotives.

At the same time, Argonne will leverage more than a decade of experience in modeling hydrogen injection and combustion to create a modeling framework to study combustion and emission control technologies used in hydrogen combustion engines. Experts in fuel injection, kinetics and combustion modeling, design optimization, high-performance computing and machine learning will take the project from start to finish.

Scientists are using Argonne’s high-performance computers to develop simulation software. This tool will help predict the behavior of combustion engines as operating conditions change and hardware is modified.

Each diesel-powered locomotive that is converted to a zero- or low-carbon energy source is anticipated to save up to 5.6 million pounds of carbon dioxide per year.

In addition to Pihl, the ORNL team includes research engineers Dean Edwards and Eric Nafziger and research mechanic Steve Whitted.

Along with Ameen, the Argonne team includes group leader and principal research scientist Riccardo Scarcelli, postdoctoral fellow Samuel Kazmouz and principal engine research scientist Christopher Powell.

The project is funded by the Vehicle Technologies Office under DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and by Wabtec. In-kind contributions are provided by Wabtec and Convergent Science, Inc. The USDepartment of Transportation Federal Railroad Administration is also funding related research on safe use of hydrogen in locomotive engines.



I prefer hydrogen combustion over fuelcells.


Why not use CNG or LNG as well as diesel.
It is much cleaner and lower CO2.
Not as low as H2, but easier to handle and H2 is only clean if you make it by electrolysis of low carbon electricity.
So a decent pathway, IMO, especially in terms of local (non CO2) pollution in or near urban areas.


Because CNG or LNG aren't sexy

Thomas Pedersen

Just a few percent (2-3) of leakage of LNG - whether it is though leaking flanges, boil-off that is not recondensed, or unburnt in the engine - leads to higher GWP (Global Warming Potential) than diesel.

LNG was never at solution and at best a halving of diesel emissions, which is nowhere near good enough.

Compound that with the fact that LNG also requires considerable infrastructure investments and the result is that it's better to just leave it altogether.

I would even go as far as to say that even hydrogen from SMR of natural gas (grey hydrogen) is better, because the hydrogen can be made blue (with sequestration of the removed CO2 from the SMR process) or even green with excess wind/solar through electrolysis.

There should be a scheme where you can purchase either color, so those willing to pay extra for true zero-CO2-emission fuel can do so. It could even be on a per-company basis; company X receives/produces quantity Y of green H2, and sells an amount equal or less to customers via special certificates. This system has worked well with biogas and wind power in EU. Not sure what is in place in the US.

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