Hydrogen-powered Generators Support Safe Rail Operations While Safeguarding the Environment

By John Boone – General Director-Signal

Hydrogen Generators Main Image | MR

A hydrogen supplier installs a new hydrogen-powered fuel cell at a Union Pacific crossing in Louisiana.

Deployment of new hydrogen fuel-cell power generators is helping Union Pacific Railroad ensure continued safe operations while having a positive impact on the environment.

Back-up power generators are used on our system whenever there’s a power outage. A common example is when major weather events occur, such as hurricanes or tornadoes. In these instances, generators power railroad crossing signals and gates to ensure continued safe rail operations. Union Pacific is able to mobilize back-up generators at a moment’s notice to any location on our system where they’re needed.

Historically, these generators have been gas-powered, but last year we began testing units with hydrogen-powered fuel cells as an alternative. Hydrogen is derived by separating H2O into its individual elements – hydrogen and oxygen – via electrolyser technology. This entirely renewable energy supply is one of the only zero-emission fuel sources on the market.

The typical gasoline-powered generators we use output approximately 325 lbs. of CO2 every 24 hours. Hydrogen fuel-cell generators, on the other hand, output 0 lbs. of CO2. Their only emission is water vapor created when the hydrogen recombines with oxygen in the atmosphere. Using hydrogen generators on our system instead of traditional gasoline-powered generators will help Union Pacific reach its science-based target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26% by 2030.

In addition to reducing emissions, hydrogen fuel cells will increase our generators’ potential run time between fueling events by 12 days – a 2,400% increase. This is particularly important when power is knocked out for prolonged periods of time, which in the past would require multiple refuelings compared to hydrogen fuel cells.

Union Pacific installed its first seven hydrogen fuel cell generators in February 2023 and has installed 60 more since then on routes where hurricanes are common. These 67 locations will potentially remove up to 150,000 pounds of CO2 emissions from our network each year.

We’re not alone in seeing this new technology’s value. The Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) is considering installing over 100 more fuel cells at crossings along its evacuation routes thanks to their reliability, sustainability and ecological benefits.

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