The world’s first hydrogen-powered tram is red. It would have to be. It was built in China.
The Chinese seem to have a head start on a promising area for hydrogen: short-distance transit. Large-scale hydrogen car travel may be a few years away (if the required infrastructure and car models appear), but trams could make sense now. The vehicle pictured here was built by Sifang, a subsidiary of the China South Rail Corporation.
“It took two years for Sifang to solve key technological problems, with the help of research institutions,” Liang Jianying, Sifang’s chief engineer, told the Xinhua news agency.
Hydrogen is an incredibly clean fuel–the only emission is water, and it has high energy density. Sifang’s tramcar can travel 60 miles (or 100 kilometers) on a single three-minute refill. “The average distance of tramcar lines in China is about 15 kilometers, which means one refill for our tram is enough for three round trips,” Liang said. Top speed is 43 mph.
Hydrogen is also a potentially world-changing companion for renewables like solar, since it’s able to store excess power (that is, electricity that can’t be used immediately). But that prospect is still some years away, at least at scale.
Sifang’s tram seems to be the first that’s commercially ready, but there are other “hydrail” projects out there. The Japanese, in particular, have been building hydrogen trains for over a decade. There are also fuel-cell-powered mining trains and research prototypes, like this one at the University of Birmingham, in England.
“It’s the fuel of the future, and always will be” is a common joke among critics. But hydrogen is likely to make sense eventually, at least for certain applications.