Interview: National Research Council of Canada on the roll-out of hydrail

3 mins read

Eddy Zuppel, program leader of clean and energy efficient transportation at the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada’s Automotive and Surface Transportation Research Centre, speaks to EHRT about a new project seeking to develop a framework that Canadian regulators can use to review and oversee proposed hydrogen-battery locomotive operations put forward by rail operators.

Eddy Zuppel, program leader of clean and energy efficient transportation at the National Research Council of Canada
Eddy Zuppel, program leader of clean and energy efficient transportation at the National Research Council of Canada

As part of the collaborative R&D project, which began in 2022, experts from NRC are working with teams from Transport Canada (TC) and the University of British Colombia (UBC), to evaluate the gaps associated with deploying hydrogen locomotives and battery-powered locomotives.

The project, which aligns with the Government of Canada’s Emission Reduction Plan, aims to identify, assess, and mitigate the potential risks of using hydrogen in rail operations, while supporting the development of best practices, codes, and standards to help industry adopt this new technology.

EHRT: What stage is the project at?

Zuppel: “The recently completed first phase of our project with TC and UBC identified the overall risks and hazards associated with operating a locomotive powered by hydrogen fuel cells using Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA), a method for identifying potential process and system problems and their impact.

“Phase 2 is currently underway and expected to be completed in 2024. Phase 2 will develop a framework that Canadian regulators can use to review and oversee proposed locomotive hydrogen-battery operations put forward by Canadian rail operators. It will also continue the examination of risks and hazards that began in Phase 1.”

EHRT: What have been the key findings so far?

Zuppel: “We have found there are few codes, standards, and regulations regarding hydrogen specific to rail, but many existing documents can be used as guidance for using hydrogen as a fuel in rail. There are currently two existing standards, IEC 63341 and IEC 62928, and one is under development. In addition, new rail specific codes and standards are currently being developed by several agencies in Canada and internationally.

“Phase 1 results indicate hydrogen storage tanks pose the greatest risk to safety; however, several risks stemming from hazards in other subsystems, including hydrogen dispensing systems, fuel supply, and fuel cell power plant, were found as well.

“An exhaustive scan of available scientific literature in Phase 1 revealed there are many areas where hazards of hydrogen fuel cell-battery systems in rail applications have not yet been documented. Areas where existing standards would need to be evaluated for adequacy for a rail environment include hydrogen sensors, pressure relief devices, fire alarm systems, air compressors (specific to fuel cell systems), hydrogen compressors, hydrogen dispensers, locomotive hydrogen storage systems, locomotive fuel cell power systems and associated equipment (ventilation, heat exchanger, water treatment), and batteries.”

EHRT: What are the potential safety and operational hazards associated with hydrail? Have mitigations been discussed yet?

Zuppel: “Regarding the potential safety and operational hazards related to hydrogen, the literature is clear about the risk of fire and explosion, as with all fuel types.

“The risk mitigation measures for hydrogen are already well understood and described in current hydrogen related standards:

  • ANSI/AIAA G095A-2017: Guide to safety of hydrogen and hydrogen systems;
  • ISO/TR 15916: Basic considerations for the safety of hydrogen systems;
  • CGA P-28: OSHA process safety management and EPA risk management plan guidance document for bulk liquid hydrogen supply systems.

“As we identify the risks and the gaps in standards, we will develop a better idea of mitigation measures specific to hydrail.”

EHRT: What key challenges do you hope to overcome/tackle with this project?

Zuppel: “NRC is working in collaboration with other Canadian government departments, railway companies, and the broader rail industry to identify the risks and hazards associated with the operation of hydrogen and battery-powered locomotives, and to advance the development of codes and standards on appropriate risk mitigation approaches endorsed by standards development technical committees.

“This work will help to build a mutual understanding about the risks and hazards associated with hydrogen and battery technologies in rail application, and how to mitigate them. Ultimately, it will foster a clear process for undertaking testing and deployment of these technologies in a manner that is safe, secure, efficient, and prevents damage to the operational environment.”

EHRT: What is next on the cards for the project? Has real life testing started yet?

Zuppel: “For battery locomotives, in Phase 2, the NRC will conduct a preliminary risk assessment similar in concept to Phase 1 for hydrogen locomotives.

“For hydrogen locomotives in Phase 2, the NRC will transfer the information produced in Phase 1 of the project into a nationally accepted risk management framework. Additionally, the NRC is also continuing work on risk and hazards analysis by leveraging our collaboration with the University of British Colombia to examine the equipment installed on a real-world locomotive.”

EHRT: Do you believe hydrogen holds the key to the decarbonization of the rail sector?

Zuppel: “As the transportation industry is undergoing major changes to reduce its environmental footprint, research and development work is crucial to better understand and evaluate technology solutions that will enable this transition.

“Hydrogen can play a significant role in decarbonization, but it is dependent on route and operational specifics. The choice of technology for a specific mode of transportation depends on many factors, but hydrogen propulsion presents several advantages:

  • It has a higher specific energy density compared to current battery technologies;
  • It is not adversely affected by cold weather; and,
  • It can be refueled rapidly.

“Electrification is another possible option, but its implementation is difficult and costly to for many routes in North America.”