China builds world’s first hydrogen tram

It’s not very fast, but at least it’s clean.

The world’s first hydrogen-powered tram has just rolled off the production line, and in a country that perhaps needs it the most – China. The sleek, bright orange tram debuted in Qingdao this month; it looks every bit like a bullet train, as long as it remains stationary.

The streetcar – manufactured by state-owned Qingdao Sifang Co. – has a top speed of 43mph with a range of 62 miles between each refuel, which is a 3-minute process each time. So, if the tram travels at full speed, it needs refuelling almost every hour and a half. The shinkansen’s in Japan can travel at speeds of about 200mph, so the hydrogen tram is really a snail in comparison.

But in Chinese cities that are becoming increasingly notorious for pollution, it is not speed, but zero-emissions that is important, and the Chinese government is not scrimping; the government will fork out US$32 billion to realise its plan to boost rail technology over a five-year period, and add an additional 1,200 miles of tram tracks  – a massive extension, considering that there are only about 83 miles of tram tracks in just seven cities across the vast country. Sifang will also build more conventional streetcars that will draw power from overhead cables or batteries.

In smog-choked Chinese cities, the hydrogen tram sounds like a smashing idea. It only emits water, after all. But there’s the continuing argument that hydrogen production uses massive quantities of power that are generated by conventional means; and in China, that means burning coal.

Automakers – like Toyota, Hyundai, Honda and General Motors – have been exploring hydrogen fuel technology as an alternative means of propulsion. But the technology has not really been considered for public transit, except for a few scant projects scattered around the world.

British Columbia, Vancouver, for instance, bought 20 hydrogen-powered buses for US$90 million as a showcase during the 2010 Olympic Games, to portray the city as advanced and sustainable. But recently, less than five years later, British Columbia Transit has pulled the brakes on the hydrogen-powered fleet and put it on sale, citing high maintenance and fuel costs (double that of the conventional diesel-powered version) as the reason. Perhaps what makes the experiment even more ironic is that the hydrogen fuel had to be transported using diesel trucks to Vancouver, which has no local supplier, from Quebec, which is 2350 miles away! That must mitigate all the benefits of using a zero-emissions system.

Another experiment is on-going in Aberdeen, the third largest city in Scotland. The Aberdeen Hydrogen Bus Project, which is now the largest hydrogen bus fleet in Europe, is a £19 million scheme backed by the Scottish government. But within two days after the official launch of UK’s first hydrogen production and bus refuelling station, two (out of ten) of the supposedly state-of-the-art buses suffered “technical issues” or, to put it bluntly, they broke down.

Still, it’s not to say that hydrogen technology has no future. Sometimes, what new technology needs is time and a whole lot of cash thrown into it. And if cash-rich China is behind hydrogen fuel cell technology, then it already has a good chance of making it big.

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