Soon hydrogen trains instead of old diesel trains?

The hydrogen train built by Alstom in Bremervoerde (Germany), September 16, 2018 (PHILIPP SCHULZE / DPA)

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It should soon replace old diesel trains in four French regions: Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Grand Est and Occitanie. The Alstom hydrogen train is tested on Monday, September 6 in Valenciennes. The Minister for Transport, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, will attend the demonstration. This is a “clean” train that only rejects water, already on the rails in Germany since 2018. On paper, the dream means of transport. Especially since the SNCF has promised to get rid of the thousand diesel trains still in circulation by 2035. To replace diesel, hydrogen appears at first glance to be miraculous.

Because it is necessary to imagine that thanks to a fuel cell, installed on the roof of the train, the hydrogen combines chemically with the oxygen of the air, which makes it possible to produce electricity, while rejecting only water vapor. We therefore obtain zero-carbon trains, capable of traveling 600 km in complete autonomy, without having to carry out work to electrify the lines. It’s kind of the holy grail. Especially since hydrogen has already proven its worth to drive trucks, buses or even taxi fleets. Airbus is even talking about a hydrogen plane for 2035.

Hydrogen therefore seems ideal for developing pollution-free modes of transport. The problem is that the production of this molecule can be more or less polluting. On earth, pure hydrogen is very scarce. It only exists in traces in the atmosphere. It is therefore necessary to recover hydrogen atoms. For that, it is necessary to break other molecules which contain it, either water molecules, or molecules of gas, petroleum or coal. Depending on the method used, one kilo of hydrogen is produced, the carbon balance of which varies from 1 to 10.

Today, the hydrogen used by industry in France is produced 95% from fossil fuels, resulting in the emission of 8.7 million tonnes of CO2 per year, according to figures from Ademe, the ecological transition agency. The ideal, to obtain really clean hydrogen trains or cars, would therefore be to use more “green” hydrogen, that is to say made from water molecules that are broken by electrolysis with renewable electricity, from solar or wind power for example. It is quite possible, but for the moment it is a more expensive process. To lower prices, we will have to invest more in this mode of production. But according to some economists, the cost of producing green hydrogen is expected to drop by 85% by 2050.

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