General Motors is teaming up with one of the largest locomotive companies to replace conventional diesel drive systems with clean battery and hydrogen technologies.
Pittsburgh manufacturer Wabtec Corp. has already tested a battery-powered locomotive prototype, finding that it reduced carbon emissions by 11 percent. The company now plans to work with GM to get that technology into production, while also exploring ways to use fuel-cell power, as well.
“The rail industry is on the cusp of a sustainable transformation with the introduction of batteries and hydrogen to power locomotive fleets,” Wabtec Chief Executive Rafael Santana said in a statement.
Potential for bigger impact with new partnership
Railroads carry about 16% of the freight hauled in the United States, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. But the diesel locomotives used in much of the country are a significant source of pollution, the EPA estimating they release about 930,000 tons of smog-causing oxides of nitrogen each year — the equivalent of 120 coal-fired generating stations. They also produce more than 45,000 tons of carbon emissions, about 1% of the U.S. transportation total.
Wabtec is one of the largest producers of conventional locomotives, having acquired that line of business from both Westinghouse and General Electric. It employs 27,000 people in 50 countries worldwide.
It has been experimenting with alternatives to diesel that can be put into operation where electrified rail lines are not available or practical. A prototype running on batteries was paired up with two conventional diesel locomotives in a California test, the system essentially matching the hauling abilities of a three-locomotive train. All told, the test run saved the equivalent of 62,000 gallons of diesel fuel — and cut about 69 tons of carbon emissions.
Now, Wabtec wants to try an alternative, renewable solution, using hydrogen fuel-cell drive technology. Fuel-cell stacks combine the lightweight gas with oxygen from the air to create a stream of current that can be used to power a locomotive’s electric motors. The system is emissions free but for water vapor.
New deal means more demand on Ultium plants
The new, non-binding agreement will see GM supply Wabtec with both its new Ultium battery cells — of which 18,000 are needed in each locomotive — as well as its HYDROTEC fuel-cell technology. That system is itself the result of a partnership between GM and Honda.
“Wabtec’s decision to deploy GM’s Ultium battery and Hydrotec hydrogen fuel cell systems further validates our advanced technology,” GM President Mark Reuss said in a statement.
Honda has focused on using the fuel-cell technology for automotive applications. GM has been looking at a number of other options, including stationary power backup systems and other transportation options, including heavy-duty and long-haul trucking.
In January, GM signed an agreement with Navistar, one of the country’s largest heavy duty truck companies. They will run a three-year test using prototype HYDROTEC fuel-cell systems, partnering with freight hauler J.B. Hunt.
Facing increasingly strict emissions mandates, freight companies have been looking at several options, including battery-power trucks like the Tesla Semi. But Navistar — like truck startup Nikola — contends hydrogen offers several key advantages: range as far as 500 miles between refills, and the ability to top off its fuel tanks in less than 15 minutes.
GM isn’t the only automaker exploring the use of hydrogen for various transportation sectors. Hyundai launched the new HTwo subsidiary last year and hopes to find applications for its own fuel-cell systems in boating, air and rail.