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Fuel Cell Powered Japanese Trains on Trial in July 295

Posted by samzenpus
from the clean-choo-choo dept.
ScorpFromHell writes "As per this yahoo! news item, "East Japan Railway Co. is to conduct a test run of the world's first fuel-cell-powered train in July. The fuel cells, which generate power from a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, will help reduce environmental pollution compared to the existing electric and diesel engines, the company said." But I wonder how much energy did it consume to produce those huge amounts of Hydrogen & Oxygen? Will it be lesser than the power generated by the reaction between them? In other words, can this technology be used by countries with not so deep pockets as Japan?"
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Fuel Cell Powered Japanese Trains on Trial in July

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  • Fuel cells are an energy storage medium, not an energy source.

    Centralizing power generation should be more efficient than millions of smaller generators all over the place.

    Now, it's just a matter of finding out if generating, transporting, and storing the required hydrogen is environmentally/economically better than diesel or gasoline.
  • hmmm (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 12, 2006 @10:50PM (#15118492)
    "In other words, can this technology be used by countries with not so deep pockets as Japan?"

    I think a better question would be "Why isn't the U.S. doing more to be in the forefront of promoting alternative fuel sources?

    Steve,
    http://tail-f.net/ [tail-f.net]
    • Re:hmmm (Score:4, Interesting)

      by ScrewMaster (602015) on Wednesday April 12, 2006 @11:53PM (#15118787)
      Mainly because no-one has actually come up with an alternative fuel source that's competitive with petroleum, not one that is sufficiently better than petroleum to make replacing the existing infrastructure economically viable. Remember, it's not enough that a new technology be only as good as what it is replacing ... it has to be substantially better in order to attract the investment required to switch over. Take hydrogen, for example ... our dear President keeps touting the "hydrogen economy" as a worthy goal. And maybe it is, but converting our vehicles and industrial processes to use hydrogen as a fuel instead of the various petroleum distillates currently in use would be a trillion-dollar effort, if it can even be accomplished at all. It would probably be cheaper to fight another World War.

      What you really should be asking "why isn't the U.S. promoting research and development of alternative fuels capable of meeting the energy needs of a vast industrial economy that are compatible with existing power production facilities." That's a bit of a tougher nut to crack, and the answer won't something as simple as "hydrogen".
  • by drgonzo59 (747139) on Wednesday April 12, 2006 @10:51PM (#15118499)
    " I wonder how much energy did it consume to produce those huge amounts of Hydrogen & Oxygen? Will it be lesser than the power generated by the reaction between them? " But of course! Now you take the energy generated and then produce more Hydrogen and Oxygen, then put it back in the cells and generate yet even more energy. The world's energy problems are solved at last! And who would have thought -- by a Japanese train and an observant Slashdotter.
    • I thought we solved that problem by lighting up an LED array with solar cells that powered the array itself, with spare juice for everything else. Another idea pwned by the laws of thermodynamics. A shame, really. [Insert oblig. Simpsons quote here]
  • by Wayne247 (183933) <slashdot@laurent.ca> on Wednesday April 12, 2006 @10:58PM (#15118538) Homepage
    Seriously, what can be possibly better than electric trains? Unless your electricity comes from coal, in which case replacing the power station to something else, say nuclear, would make more sense.

    Fuel cells are useful for energy storage. Perfect to, say, drive a car for a few hours, then dump some more into your energy storage, and drive back, in any direction. Also, they're good to bring energy to remote location. Setup a quick electricity generator in the middle of nowhere. But for trains? They go on tracks, so installing a few wires isn't too expensive or difficult, making the electricity transportation far more efficient trought wires than fitting fuel cells on every locomotive, and then carrying all that hydrogen and .. sheesh!

    Really, i see this as the wrong match of a technology to a need.
    • by fabs64 (657132) <beaufabry+slashdot,org&gmail,com> on Wednesday April 12, 2006 @11:18PM (#15118635)
      Yeah I'm sure those quirky Japanese engineers didn't think of that! :-P

      While you could be right, it's not like wired electrical trains are perfect, that wire infrastructure ISN'T simple to maintain, I witnessed that the other day when a train on my line ripped down the wires for 2 of the 3 tracks.
      Also isn't power loss for DC over wires rather large? I'd think if you had an efficient way of storing and extracting that power to just carry it with the train it would be much better.
      Also who knows, maybe one day all trains will become electric with this technology, even the ones in the middle of nowhere, I know that electricity had to be generated somewhere but those big power stations have a lot more potential to create clean(ish) energy than those dirty old diesel engine trains.
      • Right, that wire infrastructure maintenance argument makes a good case, and add to that what the article states about "improving scenery", that might be the whole motivation behind the project.

        Afterall, who says this has nothing to do with environmental goals and simply a way to get their train infrastructure deeper into rural areas while mainting their high level of reliability?

        If a fuel-cell train goes down you can still use the track and route around that track portion (given you have enough tracks), but
      • Power loss doesn't depend on AC or DC in particular. However, they do have an effect on the ease at which power can be transformed to usable voltages. Now, back to high-school electronics..

        Power loss is described as follows:

        P = IV

        V = I/R

        P = I(I/R)

        P = I^2/R

        Resistance (in the wires) is pretty much fixed - we can't do much about that. However, we can do something about current. If we transform the power to an insanely high voltage (say, 300-500kV), we minimise transmission loss by reducing current (Remember, P
      • >Also isn't power loss for DC over wires rather large?

        After several steps of yes-but.

        Power loss for *high current* over wires is high. So you want to transmit at high voltage, which lets you send the same power at lower current. Using AC lets you step the voltage up and down with transformers, which is drop-dead easy. Until fairly recently it was out of the question to get affordable, reliable equipment to change DC voltage at commercial power levels.
      • Ignoring the fact that you seem to be confused about DC vs AC for transmission, modern trains generally use AC. Carrying energy makes the train subject to the rocket equation and thus more limited in efficiency.
      • All the transmission is done in 3 phase AC. Along the tracks are sub stations that step the high voltage ac down and rectify it to dc. From there it gets distributed to the tracks or overhead lines for only a short distance (few miles if even). They only energize the length of track or wire the train is running along. Some trains use a single phase ac ovehead feed, some use a 3 phase feed. it really varies but transmission over any long distance is always 3 phase AC.
    • by martijnd (148684) on Wednesday April 12, 2006 @11:20PM (#15118641)
      I think you are looking at the wrong kind of trains -- the Japanese have lots of commuter trains connecting smaller cities, and literally millions of miles of track, don't think Tokyo, think outback.

      These trains are actually more like busses, they have maybe 2-4 cars and run infrequencly, so electrifying these tracks doesn't make much economic sense; or is just downright ugly and expensive to maintain. They are mostly diesel powered (with the engines located below the passenger compartments, there is no seperate loc).

      For these, replacing a noisy diesel engine with much quieter electrical ones makes very good sense.
    • But you'd need to lay down miles of electricity lines...that's expensive and there are lots of efficiency losses involved. Fuel cells in trains actually make more sense than they do in cars because trains are bigger and heavier so a huge heavy tank of compressed hydrogen wouldn't be all that significant. In a car, the weight of the hydrogen storage becomes a problem.

      In the end, I'd rather see a diesel-electric hybrid train [thewatt.com] than a fuel cell train and I'd rather see battery electric vehicles [thewatt.com] than fuel cell ve
    • Setup a quick electricity generator in the middle of nowhere. But for trains? They go on tracks, so installing a few wires isn't too expensive or difficult, making the electricity transportation far more efficient trought wires than fitting fuel cells on every locomotive, and then carrying all that hydrogen and .. sheesh!

      For what its worth, most commuter trains in the US (e.g. Amtrak, Metra, etc.) run on Diesel fuel. The engine burns the fuel to produce electricity for use in an electric transmission. They
    • "installing a few wires isn't too expensive or difficult"

      Take a look at the track lengths in Australia.
    • Electric wires. Everywhere. Even at the most beautiful temples. Even in front of tremendous viewpoints.

      Good lord, bring on the fuel cells.

      Btw, if you are wondering about the first two, they are 1: Japanese men are sexist pigs and 2: The "$"#"#$ last train runs around 11:30 pm!
    • It's a good point, but isn't the vast majority of Japan's electrical generation nuclear? That has its own problems but at least it cuts down on the emissions.
  • by moosesocks (264553) on Wednesday April 12, 2006 @11:03PM (#15118566) Homepage
    will help reduce environmental pollution compared to the existing electric and diesel engines


    hold on a sec.... Electric train engines produce pollution? How is that possible?

    Granted, a fair amount of power is lost in the transmission lines, but given that they're run at such a high voltage to begin with, that shouldn't be a huge issue (P=I^2*R). Is more power lost in the transmission process than the process necessary to manufacture and produce all this hydrogen and oxygen?

    Fuel Cells are nifty as an energy storage medium, but for trains, they seem wholly inappropriate, especially when electric trains eliminate the need for a storage medium at all (and in a country as densly populated as Japan, this shouldn't be an issue at all)
    • by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Wednesday April 12, 2006 @11:16PM (#15118629) Homepage Journal
      I think by "diesel and electric" they mean "diesel-electric". Basically, a diesel engine (usually with separate cylinders which can be independently replaced) drives an electric generator, or bank thereof. This in turn is used to provide power to electric motors which provide motive force for the train. The benefit is that by doing this you eliminate the need for a drivetrain, gearbox, and so on. Thus, the total weight is not changed much, but you get peak starting torque (electric motors make peak torque at 0 rpm) and you aren't constantly replacing gearboxes, drivelines, clutches, et cetera, as you would be if you were trying to put all that power through a conventional drive system. Of course, it's not exceptionally efficient. At best, the generator might be 90% efficient, and so might the drive motors, and the most efficient internal combustion engine in the world is a diesel the size of a house in a container ship that's only 50% efficient... the engines in trains are probably pretty efficient (another benefit is being able to run the engine in its powerband most of the time, except when it's running at low power and maybe at max load) but they're not even 50%.
    • by jrockway (229604) * <jon-nospam@jrock.us> on Wednesday April 12, 2006 @11:20PM (#15118640) Homepage Journal
      No, there are plenty of rural areas in Japan that (still) use diesel locomotives to move trains. Fuel-cell powered trains would be practical in these locations.
    • There is no system where there is no loss, but I think he was trying to lump coal-generated electricity into that statement. The reality is that the electricity to produce the hydrogen probably came from a coal fired plant anyway. Though I would venture a guess that there is less power loss by creating H2 at a factory and piping it to wherever you need it rather than pushing electricity over lines. Total energy cost is harder to predict though and most people rarely take into account needing to truck the
  • Some more details (Score:5, Interesting)

    by maggard (5579) <michael@michaelmaggard.com> on Wednesday April 12, 2006 @11:07PM (#15118587) Homepage Journal
    The linked story is pretty short on details, Google [google.com] has a lot more articles.

    Summarized this is a test vehicle being used on a non-electrified line in a mountainous region. The advantages are less local pollution (which can be a significant issue in mountainous regions where diesel exhaust can linger or even concentrate in valleys) and no large capitol investment in line electrification & maintenance. A side benefit is the advantages of an electrical train without power lines intruding into the landscape.

    As a regular user of urban commuter rail service this sounds like an interesting development. The cost of electrifying a rail line is prohibitive yet the all-electric engines are quieter and less polluting, a big sell in expanding service in urban & ex-urban areas. Technology like this could certainly quiet the complaints of many neighbors as well as improve the air quality near central stations.

    • no large capitol investment in line electrification & maintenance.

      They *could* just do the third-rail trick as per NYC, Chicago, etc. subway systems, and that would eliminate the overhead catenary lines.

      • Not exactly feasible in the wilderness, unless you're looking for a bumper crop of pre-cooked trackkill.
      • They *could* just do the third-rail trick as per NYC, Chicago, etc. subway systems, and that would eliminate the overhead catenary lines.

        Yes, except that would be incompatible with most railway designs whereas the fuel-cell models are drop-in replacements for diesels. Also you'd still be stuck with the huge cost of electrifying the line.

        Then there's the problem of many railway lines not being secured along their length like the systems you're referring to. It'd be rather ugly the first time some person

  • once again approaches one.

    Editors - how about feeding us some articles with some real info in them? There just might be some technical people in this crowd who'd read them.

  • by scovetta (632629) on Wednesday April 12, 2006 @11:08PM (#15118592) Homepage
    Alright, everyone's going to jump down the guy's throat for:

    But I wonder how much energy did it consume to produce those huge amounts of Hydrogen & Oxygen? Will it be lesser than the power generated by the reaction between them?

    However, I think we should question the efficiency of this. If it takes X amount of energy to run a normal train, but 4X to produce the fuel cell, then is that really a good thing? It's like people saying that electric cars are so much better for the environment. Instead of burning gasoline, you burn coal (or whatever) in the power plants. Is the efficiency of a power plant really so much better than your car?

    I don't know the answer to that, but I'm sure there's a /.er out there with some nice statistics for us all.
    • I, indeed, was going to make several sarcastic comments about this unfortunate statement. However, I'll let that lie (merely reflecting on the importance of science education...in Australia we're required to study English literature until we're 17 - but maths and science only until we're 14. Makes you wonder...

      Anyway, my real comment is that AFAIK there's going to be very little (energetic) advantage in using a fuel cell train over an electric train. On the one hand, if you need to use power lines to g

    • by Forbman (794277) on Wednesday April 12, 2006 @11:34PM (#15118723)
      Except that at least in the case of Japan, they have a lot of neukular power plants. It could be that they siphon the hydrogen and LOX off of the liquid gas extraction plants next to a couple of steel mills that are relatively close to the rail yard.

      Much like biodiesel from recycled french fry oil doesn't scale, this method may not scale either, but it's good to actually have one to see how it pans out in real-world service.

      It's no different really than Union Pacific's experiments with gas turbine locomotives, or US and European experiments with steam turbine locos, closed-cycle steam locos, etc.

      I think more interesting will be how GE Locomotive's hybrid diesel-electrics work out. If the battery pack had enough amp-hours to replace one locomotive from the consist as a large train tries to power up a mountain grade, then perhaps it'll really justify itself. Of course, it won't work out on lines with multiple grades right after another (Appalachians?), but up places like Cajon Pass it might be beneficial.

      Is the efficiency of a power plant really so much better than your car?
      Yes, from a thermodynamic perspective it is, as well as economy of scale-wise. The coal plant is running at a steady state, and the average car engine does not. The Otto cycle engine's advantage is its flexible power output curve, which is needed for cars, especially in urban driving. Supplant a smaller displacement Otto-cycle engine that meets the power needs of the car to cruise at 70mph on the flats with an electric assist motor (instant full torque) and battery pack, and you kind of get the best of both worlds without trying to make the gas engine too complicated (i.e., variable displacement, etc).
      • Of course, it won't work out on lines with multiple grades right after another

        I would think that this is precisely where it would be most useful, provided there's enough power storage. At first thought I would guess that really the only difference between a hybrid diesel-electric train and a normal one is that the hybrid has batteries (or for all I know, a flywheel) and does regenerative braking, thus it has all the hardware that entails. I don't think it will necessarily reduce the number of locomoti

    • by evilviper (135110) on Thursday April 13, 2006 @12:23AM (#15118870) Journal
      If it takes X amount of energy to run a normal train, but 4X to produce the fuel cell, then is that really a good thing?

      More energy is still cheaper and more "green" if you are getting it from nuclear, hydro, wind, solar, etc. It's also trivially easy to charge them off-peak, when the energy is cheaper to produce because it's available in excess.

      4X wouldn't be a good number, but even 2X would work-out just fine, and there's no reason to assume it's anywhere near that bad, anyhow.

      Instead of burning gasoline, you burn coal (or whatever) in the power plants. Is the efficiency of a power plant really so much better than your car?

      Yes, it certainly is. Even when you count the line losses, charger losses, battery losses, etc., you still come out ahead of burning gasoline directly. Besides that, your car doesn't have complex exhaust filtering and control systems, as power plants do. And, NIMBY should apply here, since the power plants can be far away from you, and polluting where there are far, far fewer people to be affected by it.

      Electric cars would likely be charged at night, as well, when a much lower percentage of that power is comming from coal, and more is comming from hydro, wind, etc.

      No statistics from me. I've posted them to /. plenty of times before, and don't feel like looking them up yet again.
    • I live in the Portland (Oregon) area; most of our electricity here comes from hydroelectric dams.
  • by slashbob22 (918040) on Wednesday April 12, 2006 @11:11PM (#15118614)
    Well, sir, there's nothing on earth
    Like a genuine,
    Bona fide,
    Electrified,
    Six-car
    Monorail! ...
  • hydrogen economy (Score:4, Informative)

    by perrin5 (38802) on Wednesday April 12, 2006 @11:18PM (#15118636) Homepage
    Having spent a lot of time analyzing the hydrogen economy in terms of generation, this topic is near and dear to my heart.

    Hydrogen is a method of TRANSPORTING and STORING energy. It is not a solution to energy generation. As a storage and transport method, IMSO (S=Scientific), it is not particularly cost effective, and has as much potential for unforseen concequenses as any other untested energy method.

    That said, I am highly in favor of fuel cells in general, and am happy to see them adopted more often.

    In relation to the question asked about poorer countries, I would also hasten to point out that the fuel cells themselves are expensive, as they require (I believe) a platinum catalyst.

    That is all.
  • While I'm all for fuel cells and cleaner use of energy, if it's one thing that most Japanese people want from their trains is NOT for them to use cleaner energy, but for the damn things to be BIGGER.

    Nobody wants to get crushed in the morning by hundreds of alcohol reeking salary men storming onto the morning rush hour train every day. Nobody should have to put up with being fondled and "fart in the elevator" scenarios either, simply because the train is too small to handle the number of people it attempts t
    • Now, I'm probably going to get told I don't know what the fuck I'm talking about, but most of what I've read suggests that women get fondled on trains in Japan mostly because they don't make a scene when it happens, which is supposedly the result of cultural conditioning. Seems to me that it makes sense. Of course, if they did, it might not have much of an impact, for the same reason - everyone might just look at her like she should shut up and try to enjoy it. But I don't really know if any of this is true
  • Thermodynamics (Score:3, Informative)

    by Blackeagle_Falcon (784253) on Wednesday April 12, 2006 @11:34PM (#15118720)

    "But I wonder how much energy did it consume to produce those huge amounts of Hydrogen & Oxygen? Will it be lesser than the power generated by the reaction between them?"

    First law of thermodynamics says . . . NO!

    And as Homer Simpson put it, "In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!"

  • But... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mark-t (151149) <markt@lynx.b c . ca> on Wednesday April 12, 2006 @11:50PM (#15118781) Journal
    "But I wonder how much energy did it consume to produce those huge amounts of Hydrogen & Oxygen? Will it be lesser than the power generated by the reaction between them?"
    Of course not.

    But that's largely irrellevant if the energy to produce them was derived from an energy source that is not exausted by use, such as solar, hydro, or geothermal sources.

    • Where does the electricity to use for electrolysis come from?

      Fossile fuels (wait, wouldn't that defeat the purpose?), nuclear (misguided eco-nuts are against it), or solar (I'm pretty sure hampsters on wheels with dynamos are more cost-effective).

      I never understood how the mass media has no grasp of thermodynamics. You only need to memorize 2 stinkin words to undertand our energy problems: ENTROPY and CONSERVATION.

      1. Entropy: Physics is out to screw over the environment by making EVERYTHING less than 100% e
      • If it came from fossil fuels, it would most certainly defeat the purpose.

        Nuclear is only a problem for some people... predominantly in the US, who are having a hard time forgetting 3-mile island.

        Solar cells may not be very efficient... yet. But the point is that you don't drain its availability by using it. Wind power, by the way, is also a form of solar power, and is in quite common use already at various places around the world.

        Geothermal energy and hydro are other sources of energy that are not ex

        • Solar cells may not be very efficient... yet. But the point is that you don't drain its availability by using it. Wind power, by the way, is also a form of solar power, and is in quite common use already at various places around the world.

          Well if you want to get technical, alcohol-powered vehicles are actually solar powered, along with hydro.

          Why stop there?

          The earth came from the a star, right? well I guess that means even geothermal and fossile fuels are solar powered.

          Efficacy is as important as efficiency
  • by Phat_Tony (661117) on Thursday April 13, 2006 @12:04AM (#15118826)
    "But I wonder how much energy did it consume to produce those huge amounts of Hydrogen & Oxygen? Will it be lesser than the power generated by the reaction between them? In other words, can this technology be used by countries with not so deep pockets as Japan?"

    What, rich people should do things that are economically stupid?

    It's not about this being stupidly inefficient, yet Japan can afford to do it anyway because they're rich. The question is, which is a more efficient use of electricity (or, more generally,. resources), running an electric train, or running a hydrogen/oxygen fuel cell train? Whether you're rich or poor, you should still use the technology that works best for you.

    I think it might have occurred to someone in Japan to check and see if this is better than running a conventional electric train in otherwise similar conditions before building it. Although it's quite possible they didn't care. It could be like ethanol [wikipedia.org] in the US, which is used for political reasons, not because it's an efficient way to improve the environment. Depending on who's counting, it generates between .7 and 1.5 times as much power as it consumes to make. We could reduce pollution (including carbon emissions) much more by spending the money we spend on ethanol on nuclear power, solar arrays, or wind power. Ethanol fuel, in it's present state, is government graft to benefit corn farmers and ease the conscience of environmentalists who don't understand it.

    I am interested to know if this train really is about a great new technology for saving the environment, or a political ambition.

    • My understanding is that it's possible for ethanol production from corn stocks to be energy-positive but it takes expensive equipment. However, it's pretty well-known that there are other stocks from which ethanol can be generated that are more easily energy-positive. You're quite right about the fact that ethanol production from corn stocks in the US is currently just another farm subsidy, though.

      Of course, if you're really going to be doing biofuel, you're better off doing biodiesel, which is definite

  • by no reason to be here (218628) on Thursday April 13, 2006 @12:32AM (#15118899) Homepage
    Fuel Cell Powered Japanese Trains on Trial in July

    What are they on trial for?

    Huh? Ohhhhhh....
  • by ChrisGilliard (913445) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {draillig.rehpotsirhc}> on Thursday April 13, 2006 @02:21AM (#15119157) Homepage
    But I wonder how much energy did it consume to produce those huge amounts of Hydrogen & Oxygen? Will it be lesser than the power generated by the reaction between them?

    Even if it takes about the same energy to produce the chemicals, this is ok. Don't think of a fuel cell as an energy producer, it's an energy storage device. This is like a battery. When you charge a battery, you don't get a net increase in energy. You are merely moving electricity that is produced in an electric plant into the battery. The train is the same idea. With something the same size as a train, I can't see any reason not to just use a battery. In fact, you could potentially have a batery car or something like that to store the energy and it would be cheaper than fuel cells. Fuel cells are mainly interesting in automobile applications because their energy storage density is greater than Lithium batteries. Still it's good to see work being done on the fuel cell front.

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