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  • Writer's pictureZhongyi Ho

Hydrogen trains: Chevron is making a move

Updated: Oct 15, 2022

Edited by Sanaya Narula.


The climate crisis has been haunting us since the 19th century, when ice ages and natural changes, as well as greenhouse gases, were observed and suspected in the paleoclimate. As the advancement of technology quickly propagates, pivoting into a more sustainable energy source is critical in combating the climate crisis. A myriad of automotive companies and energy companies have looked into alternative energy sources, including lithium-ion batteries (for example in electric vehicles or EVs), wind energy, and solar energy. Being one of the leading energy companies in the world, Chevron Corporation is looking into the potential hydrogen fuel cells hold.¹


Figure 1: Showing the mechanism of a typical hydrogen fuel cell.⁴

Chevron Corporation (NYSE: CVX) is an American multinational energy corporation that is focusing on harnessing energy from different sources.² Prior to investing in hydrogen trains, Chevron Corp. has committed $400 million to invest in various companies with low-carbon technologies.³ The four main future energy systems that Chevron Corp. has invested in are: industrial decarbonisation, emerging mobility, energy decentralisation, and circular carbon economy.


Amongst the 19 companies in Chevron Corp.’s future energy fund investment portfolio, there are two that specialise in in harnessing the energy from hydrogen: Sapphire Technologies, a California-based developer for hydrogen industrial applications, and Hydrogenious LOHC Technologies GmbH, a Germany-based developer of Liquid Organic Hydrogen Carriers (LOHCs) technology.


Image credits: Let's Talk Science (2019)

Chevron Corporation is partnering up with Progress Rail (a Caterpillar Inc. Company; NYSE: CAT) and BNSF Railway Company (BNSF) in developing a locomotive powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, and as Caterpillar Inc. said: “The goal of the demonstration is to confirm the feasibility and performance of hydrogen fuel for use as a viable alternative to traditional fuels for line-haul rail.”


Since the hydrogen fuel cell first became a sought-after technology in the early 2000s, countless companies and countries have been trying to develop the technology. A clear benefit of hydrogen fuel cells over most other (renewable) energy sources is that hydrogen ‘burns clean’; that is to say, the combustion - or burning - of hydrogen releases no harmful by-products. This can be seen using this equation: 2H2 (g) + O2 (g) → 2H2O(l). There is no tailpipe emission by using hydrogen fuel cells - only warm air and vapour are produced.


A typical hydrogen fuel cell is composed of a negatively charged cathode plate and a positively charged anode plate, separated by an electrolyte membrane. Hydrogen and oxygen molecules are passed through the plates, and by using a catalyst, hydrogen molecules are split into protons and electrons. Only the positively charged particles are able to pass through the membrane, whilst the electrons pass through a circuit which generates a current. This current is used to power the vehicle regardless of whether it is a vehicle with an automotive engine or a locomotive engine.



With that being said, developing hydrogen fuel cells is not easy. Hydrogen is extremely flammable, and it is difficult to store hydrogen; compressing or liquefying hydrogen loses the total energy content of hydrogen itself. Furthermore, the efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells is only at around 60%; although this is much better than internal combustion engines (which use fossil fuels) which function at an efficiency of 20-30%, hydrogen fuel cells have a long way to go to be on par with lithium-ion batteries with an efficiency of 99%.⁵


It is difficult to predict what the future will hold, but one day, vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells will be ubiquitous. This might be a stepping stone to properly combat climate change, but constant advancement in technology is needed to power the change. Once we have advanced technology, it will be possible to develop and improve the efficiency of hydrogen fuel cells and other renewable energy sources; as Arthur C. Clarke once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.⁶



Glossary


Paleoclimate: A commonly-occurred climate at a particular time in the geological past.


 

References:

  1. Caterpillar, BNSF and Chevron Agree to Pursue Hydrogen Locomotive Demonstration. (2021, December 14). Caterpillar. https://www.caterpillar.com/en/news/corporate-press-releases/h/caterpillar-BNSF-chevron-hydrogen-locomotive-demonstration.html

  2. Tbh, T. (2021, April 9). Brand | Chevron Corp – The Energy Giant Like No Other. The Brand Hopper. https://thebrandhopper.com/2021/04/09/brand-chevron-corp-the-energy-giant-like-no-other/

  3. Chevron. (2022). Our action areas to help advance a lower-carbon future. Chevron.Com. https://www.chevron.com/sustainability/environment/energy-transition

  4. Hydrogen fuel cells, explained | Airbus. (2020, October 15). Airbus. https://www.airbus.com/en/newsroom/news/2020-10-hydrogen-fuel-cells-explained

  5. Forbes, J. (2021). Hydrogen Fuel Cell Advantages and Disadvantages in Material Handling. Fluxpower. https://www.fluxpower.com/blog/hydrogen-fuel-cell-advantages-and-disadvantages-in-material-handling

  6. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” (2018, November 27). CCCB LAB. https://lab.cccb.org/en/arthur-c-clarke-any-sufficiently-advanced-technology-is-indistinguishable-from-magic/


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