Vossloh Rolling Stock Adds Hydrogen to Modular Portfolio

Written by Kevin Smith, Editor-in-Chief, International Railway Journal
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Vossloh Rolling Stock’s Modula switcher locomotive is the foundation of its flexible traction concept, which now includes a battery hydrogen fuel cell variant. This is the electric-battery-battery (EBB) version.

Vossloh Rolling Stock has taken its first steps into offering hydrogen-based traction for its latest fleet of switcher locomotives. Kevin Smith visited the manufacturer in Kiel to learn more about its project with Germany’s Duisport Rail.

The port of Duisburg in western Germany is already Europe’s biggest inland port. It will also possess Europe’s largest container terminal when construction of a new 58-acre facility with capacity for up to 850,000 TEUs is completed in the first quarter of 2024.

The Duisburg Gateway Terminal (DGT) might be located on the site of the former Coal Island at the port, but sustainability is at its heart. Under the enerPort II project, work is under way to develop a sustainable hydrogen-based energy system based on fuel cells, hydrogen engines and battery storage to power the terminal’s buildings, infrastructure and equipment as well as to provide supplementary energy to the grid.

As Europe’s first climate-neutral container terminal, DGT is considered a model for future logistics, including rail operations. The port will possess 12 2,400-foot-long rail freight tracks for unloading and loading containers, six gantry cranes, five loading areas and three berths for barges. More than 40 trains from China will serve the facility every week as well as tens of others from destinations across Europe.

Duisport Rail is also pursuing the use of hydrogen to fuel its locomotive fleet. The port signed a letter of intent with Vossloh Rolling Stock (VR) in May for the supply of two hydrogen-powered switcher locomotives. The Kiel-based manufacturer is also providing two electric-battery hybrid locomotives that will similarly replace diesel switchers at the port.

“We have high hopes for hydrogen as a future alternative to vehicles shunting outside of the electrified rail network,” says Hans-Georg Christiansen, executive director and head of rail operations at Duisport Rail. “These new modular locomotives are ideally suited to this strategy because they can be perfectly calibrated to the respective switching operations, and they contribute enormous synergy potential when combined with the battery-powered Modula EBB version, two of which will enter in service in 2025.”

The locomotives are expected to run on green hydrogen produced at the port and are the latest evolution in VR’s modular locomotive range. During a visit by IRJ to Kiel this summer, Dirk Pries, VR’s product manager, said that initially the manufacturer did not put too much emphasis on using hydrogen in its switcher locomotives, citing the insufficient power output of hydrogen fuel cells which have tended to be used in passenger rolling stock. However, with the wind very much in Duisport Rail’s sails to explore the potential of hydrogen, he said the manufacturer decided to pursue the project and develop its first battery-fuel cell (BFC) locomotive.

Chinese experience

VR has drawn significantly on the experience of its mother company, CRRC Zhuzhou Electric Locomotive (CRRC Zelc), during the development phase of the project. Pries explains that the Chinese firm has already developed its own hydrogen fuel cell technology, which it has deployed in several projects including passenger vehicles and a switching locomotive for Xinshuo Railway, part of CHN Energy, which serves coal mining areas in Inner Mongolia and Shanxi.

This 60-mph hydrogen-powered switcher has capacity of 1,553 gallons of hydrogen fuel, enabling it to run continuously for more than 500 miles for more than 12 hours. The 2.4MW (3,219 hp) unit has a maximum starting traction force of 560kN (126,000 foot-pounds) and can move a maximum straight line traction load of 10,000 tonnes and up to 5,000 tonnes on a 4% gradient. The first trials with the locomotive were successfully completed in August.

“Our development team and the Chinese team have worked together to develop the best possible solution for Duisport and Duisport Rail,” Pries says. “We are discussing it on a weekly basis.”

Pries says the hydrogen locomotive for Duisport will be based on the battery-diesel-diesel (BDD) hybrid variant of VR’s Modula (previously DM 20) locomotive platform. This locomotive is equipped with two 480kW (644 hp) diesel engines and a single 160kWh lithium titanate battery. The hydrogen variant will also have the same underframe, cab, bogies, brake and HVAC systems as all Modula locomotives, according to Pries. “Everything is the same,” he says. “The secret behind using the BDD is that it already has the battery below the cab. We replace the diesel engines, we replace the fuel tank and add the fuel cell and hydrogen tanks and we put a cooling system on the roof. But everything is based on the BDD as we know it. That is our idea.”

He says the team is also in regular discussions with Duisport Rail over the ongoing development of the locomotive and other customer requirements such as the associated fuelling infrastructure and its plans to produce green hydrogen.

On this front, Duisport announced in June that it is investigating the feasibility of constructing a 20MW (26,820 hp) electrolysis plant for production of green hydrogen at the port in partnership with Lhyfe, a green hydrogen production firm. The plant is expected to have capacity to produce up to 8 tonnes of green hydrogen a day. As well as fuel for logistics activities at DGT, it would provide green hydrogen for Duisburg Transport’s (DVV) future hydrogen bus fleet and to Duisburg Business Enterprise (WBD) for hydrogen-powered refuse collection. If development proceeds as planned, production could start in 2025.

Pries confirmed that VR and Duisport Rail have agreed that delivery and storage of the hydrogen to fuel the new locomotive fleet should adopt the 350-bar “standard” widely used in other hydrogen rail applications, which will provide sufficient range for a single day’s operation. However, he says VR’s hydrogen traction system is prepared to support storage and delivery at 700 bar, which is “the next step,” and can potentially offer 60-70% greater liquefied hydrogen storage capacity than at 350 bar.

“For us that’s really helpful because we want our hydrogen locomotive to be able to run for a whole day on hydrogen and the battery without refuelling,” he says. “If it has to refuel every few hours, that does not make sense.”

Storing sufficient hydrogen on the locomotive is therefore the major challenge for this and every other hydrogen rail project. Yet Pries is confident that VR will be able to overcome this difficulty. He is likewise encouraged by the ongoing development of European standards for hydrogen storage and delivery, with significant developments expected in 2024, which should guide work in the future.

As for further use of hydrogen fuel for locomotives, Pries is similarly optimistic about the potential of using internal combustion engines rather than fuel cells, which have dominated up until now. “One of the many, many reasons is that combustion engines can burn every kind of hydrogen,” he says. “The fuel cell requires a very, very high quality of hydrogen. It must be very pure and be very clean. The combustion engine burns everything.”

Another advantage is the possible upgrade of existing diesel engines to use hydrogen fuel, very much aligning with VR’s modular concept where customers have the opportunity to change the traction system on their existing locomotives as their energy requirements evolve. Indeed, with batteries, electric and hydrogen options, VR’s vehicle portfolio is very-well-placed to meet all manner of future customer demand for sustainable traction.

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