Does hydrogen fuel have any advantage over electricity?

The hydrogen train just seems silly. I really don’t see an advantage to this over an electric train.
Electric trains have been around for a long time, and electricity requires fewer steps to produce than hydrogen fuel. What advantage does this train have?
The only possible advantage I could see is if it is cheaper to make hydrogen fuel than to build electrified tracks. Is that the case?

As I understand it, yes. Hydrogen allows the train to carry its own energy, which means the tracks can be bog-standard train tracks. Batteries of the same capacity would be much heavier.

Most freight locomotives are actually diesel-electric. The drive is electric, and the diesel fuel is just to run a generator to supply the electricity. Hydrogen-electric is just that, but with cleaner fuel.

Hydrogen’s main problems are a lack of energy density, difficulty in storage, and methods for creating it. You have to use some other energy source to create hydrogen, so the question always becomes, “is it better to just cut out the middle man and use that source directly?” Even once you do make hydrogen, it’s very hard to store because it diffuses through most materials, and to get any remotely viable capacity you generally need to compress it highly. That is energy intensive in itself, and it also requires some pretty expensive and dangerous storage vessels.

The interesting aspect of this relates to electrification of railroads. The overhead wiring is quite complicated and expensive, along with the visual and maintenance issues that come with that. Especially here in the US, railroad property is taxed on its value just like any other property. So the railroads actually have an incentive to keep capital improvements to a minimum to lessen the tax burden. Thus, extra tracks are removed, buildings demolished, and even electrification scrapped. The amount of electrified trackage in the US has actually decreased to roughly half of its peak from the 1930s when it was a better alternative to steam locomotives. All these factors do make a portable energy storage medium more compelling.

Is it really cleaner when you take into account the hydrocarbons that must be burned in order to compress and liquefy the hydrogen?

Why not burn hydrogen?

The bolded is not correct. But if you were only generating electricity by burning hydrocarbons (instead of nuclear, wind, etc.), something like NGCC is far cleaner and more efficient than a diesel genset.

The best way to view H2 was explained to me a long time ago by a fairly big name in alternative fuels.

Hydrogen is not a fuel, it’s a conduit.

Viewing H2 as a fuel makes it absurd - the production efficiency is dismal and the effective energy per mile is low. It can’t begin to compete with fossil.

But as a conduit or pipeline or battery - you can produce separated H2 and compress it all day long from vast but erratic and low-efficiency sources like wind or solar or wave or geothermal, then distribute that captured energy to power plants and vehicles. It’s not the inherent energy from burning it that’s meaningful, but the transfer of “good” energy using H2 as a carrier.

We’ve gone around the fuel versus non-fuel (“conduit” in your terms) a time or two. It’s a bit of an artificial distinction. If hydrogen was laying around to be picked up easily it’d be a fuel.

Coal is simply a conduit between the ancient past and now. The only reason coal (or petroleum) is considered a fuel is that we can convert it today a directly usable form and still have calories left over to consume usefully. What we get out of the coal is far fewer calories than went into making the coal.

If hydrogen was lying around the same way coal is we could make the corresponding conversions and have calories left over to consume usefully to.

IOW, the difference is not one of chemistry or essential Platonic Form. It’s one of distribution and convenience. Mostly it’s a matter of timeshifting, stealing unused solar energy from the ancient past and consuming it today.

Once that ancient bank of stored solar energy has been exhausted, coal will no more be a fuel than hydrogen is. We’d need to spend more energy to collect the ingredients to make coal than we’d get from using it. Coal’d be a conduit.

Yes, once that happens, that will be true. But it hasn’t happened yet. There is, in fact, coal just lying around to be picked up right now, and there is not, in fact, hydrogen in the same situation.

An alternative some people have talked about is ammonia (3 atoms of hydrogen and 1 atom of nitrogen):

I heard we can just send somebody to the sun at night to pick some up.

The article makes clear this is for use in short stretches of essentially commuter rail in Germany that have not been electrified, and the point is that it is very quiet (because it has no actual combustion and moving parts, it’s a fuel cell) and entirely nonpolluting, both of which are going to matter in a congested urban environment. One might reasonably also assume that the congested urban environment is one reason they don’t just electrify these stretches – that’s a major construction project, and those are painful and expensive in cities.

In this case, overall fuel efficiency was not the #1 priority, something quiet and inoffensive to the nose that didn’t require a major building project was.

Easier to transport and store. But of course you have the energy losses associated with making it.

As well, this installation is a technology pathfinder. Almost by definition, those are not the lowest cost way to do whatever.

But just as the subsidized investment in solar and in wind to date have vastly improved their unsubsidized economics vice 20-30 years ago, lessons learned with this installation should improve the state of the art with benefits accruing in the future.

As someone who lives in a dense urban area with lots of “fuck yeah!!” pickup trucks and Harleys with no mufflers, I’m all for us beginning to recognize that unnecessary vehicle noise is a form of vandalism and a very real degradation to the common environment.