Operail Stargate Hydrogen fuel cell locomotive impression

ESTONIA: National freight operator Operail and technology company Stargate Hydrogen have signed a letter of intent for the conversion of diesel-electric shunting locomotives to fuel cell power.

The project is to be undertaken in two phases, starting with the completion of a prototype by the end of 2022.

The base locomotive will be the C36-7A, with the rebuild reusing ‘most of the bottom half’; the diesel engine will be replaced by a zero-emission powertrain consisting of polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells from a ’leading brand’ and lithium ion batteries.

Stargate Hydrogen will develop the powertrain and co-ordinate the conversion work in co-operation with Operail. It will also be responsible for type approval. Successful certification of the prototype would be followed by the conversion of an additional 40 locomotives.

It is estimated that the conversion will save around 370 tonnes of CO2 emissions per locomotive per year.

Economically sustainable

Stargate Hydrogen said there were only a small number of companies currently developing hydrogen-powered locomotives. Combining its technology with Operail’s end-user experience would help it to become a global leader in the market for selling or leasing fuel cell locos.

The company will initially offer a full-service package covering the whole hydrogen value chain, including production.

The conversion of ageing diesel locomotives to hydrogen power ‘is already an economically sustainable solution and will be even more so in the future’, said Chief Technology Officer Rainer Küngas. This would enable the continued use of locos ‘that would otherwise end up as stranded assets once they no longer meet future emission standards.’

Operail Stargate Hydrogen fuel cell locomotive impression

Operail Chairman Raul Toomsalu said the operator’s sustainability ambitions would primarily be achieved through the electrification of Estonia’s main lines, but there would still be requirements for shunting operations.

‘The team at Stargate Hydrogen has outstanding international experience and world-class technological capabilities, while our professionals at the Tapa depot have the skills and knowledge for building modern locomotives’, he said. ‘As a result of this collaboration, we can offer innovative and environmentally sustainable solutions in all our target markets.’

Henrik Hololei, Director-General for Mobility & Transport at the European Commission, said ‘even if rail is already largely electrified, energy-efficient and our most sustainable transport mode, it is certainly no time to be complacent. For example, around 20% of our engines in the EU still run on diesel.

‘There is no doubt that we need innovative solutions to enable the wider use of alternative fuels such as green hydrogen. We are keen on exploring, together with the Shift2Rail and Fuel Cells & Hydrogen joint undertakings, how fuel cells and hydrogen can be integrated into rail operations and how to turn ideas into actual projects and applications.’

C36-7A is the base locomotive.