Modern Energy Solutions for Sustainable Railways: An Overview

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Buckminster Fuller-an architect, an author and a futurist once said that, “the invention of railroads occurred when seafaring people in the South Pacific, desperate to have a mean to “land” their ships which lead to the development of a simple system of rails having wheels underneath of ships”. With the extension of rails, railroads were born and sooner outspread everywhere to be an essential part of one’s life.

Railways being one of the oldest and most widely used modes of transport remained a mute witness of the revolutions and reforms that had taken place in every walk of life, worldwide. Rail had stimulated and drove countries economic growth and become an essential vehicle for economic diversification and proved to be a true catalyst for cultural assimilation. In principle, railway technology today is the same as it was in the early days-the low friction arrangement of iron wheels on iron rails-but the implementation is entirely different. Railway can’t be an untouchable in a fast changing world of transportation, not only in growing scale but also futuristic technologies that have adopted and implemented. Railway evolved itself from carbon, to electric trains, to MagLev and Hyperloop technologies-which set to debut in near future. The sole purpose and focus of these developments were on increasing the efficiency, passenger comfort, safety, reducing the travel time, and overall modernization of rail transportation.

With speculating, 75% of the peoples living in cities, the world’s population would stand at 9.5 billion by 2050. It would be interesting to see, the future technologies changing face of railways in and out in terms of passengers and freight.

These efforts are very much essential to make railway more attractive, safer, and secure. One of the important aspects of these developments is to attract more people to choose to travel by train. Being a sustainable mode of transport, railway’s role in keeping environment clean and pollution free for future generations is significant. The forthcoming changes in railway sector will be driven by evolving needs and expectations of the future passengers, better services, loyalty, and customizability of preferences. These modern inventions to be implemented in railways would cater the public demand of ease of convenience, comfort, speed, safety and reliability

Railway being one of the largest consumers of diesel and electricity, at least for countries like India and other developing nations, clear formulation and effective implementation of energy policies are of great significance in terms of energy scenario of the nation. Therefore, stringent measures need to be adopted to achieve energy security, sustainable development and thereby minimizing environmental damages.

Even a small successful innovation towards energy saving/ harnessing could impact overall railway system where still fossil fuels are being considered as primary source of energy. Fast changing global energy scenarios and equally fast depleting fossil fuel reservoirs compelled us to seek alternative energy sources of fuel for railways which is one of the major players. This account gives glimpses into a realm where either technologies are already been developed or about to step-in to be implemented commercially. Some of them are just into experimental phase but once successful, have potential to change the railway sector never before.

Image Credit : wikipedia

Wind Energy Powered Railways

Wind power known to mankind since ages and became a true catalyst for cultural diversification by prompting sailors to sail into new horizons. For more than two millennia, wind energy powered human civilization had transformed into what we call as ‘a modern civilization’. One of the main advantages of wind energy is being its abundance. It is available almost every corner of the world and can harness into any form of energies such as mechanical energy, electrical energy etc. Rising concerns over fossil fuel depletion and environmental issues caused by them had led an expansion of interest into renewable energy sources, wind energy among them. Availability of wind sources and reduced investment cost due to modern technological advances are the key driving forces for fostering growth of ‘wind power industry’ by 25% per year.

As far as railways being fueled on wind energy is concerned, The Netherlands have taken the lead and become the first country to run trains solely powered by wind energy. Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) set a goal of running their railways 100% on renewable energy which to be produced by installation of wind turbines both on and off shore. They achieved this goal one year before the deadline, by partnering with the renewable energy company Eneco in 2015. Fueled by this cent percent green energy, 4,800 wind-powered trains will be running on track catering 1.1 million passengers.

Indian railways, with its “Green Energy Mission” is set to power about 50 railway stations on either by wind or solar energy. In Birur, Karnataka, a 15kW wind and solar harnessing plant is installed which would produce 20,000 units of electricity. In continuation of these efforts, 26 MW windmill is also inaugurated in Jaisalmer. A serious discussion among the scientific fraternity prompted an idea where, windmill-though small in size, on a moving body such as train could be an ideal candidate for exploiting wind energy. The wind faced by trains is enough to run a small wind turbine. It estimated that 27299.69378 kW power could be generated from such particular trains. Some of the designs presented in this regard may find their way on commercial scale. Big turbines mounted on a moving train is however seems theoretically possible but practicalities taken into account deems inadequately viable. A technology, though in infancy, is about take shape, where setting up wind mills along the track and the turbulent air produced by the moving train due to pressure drop would accelerate turbine blades and rotate it.

Solar Powered Railways

Sun radiates more energy in one second than people have practiced since the beginning of time. So harvesting this energy for useful means is not a new idea. Scientists were on constant pursuit to trap this energy and to fulfill the demand of energy to certain extent, if not complete.

Thanks to nanotechnology and nano-materials in practice which made harvesting solar energy possible and increased it to many folds. Therefore solar energy is one of the most clean, unlimited and sustainable energy sources that are expected to last for another four billion or more years.

Solar powered train is not a dream, but a reality. Accelerated developments in this area made it technically feasible to power a train by harvesting solar energy. The solar panels are lined on the carriage roof and used to produce energy that is stored in a battery system. The world’s first 100% solar-powered train is now gliding down tracks in Australia which is equipped with 6.5 kW solar arrays with flexible solar panels. 100 Seated passengers and other standing passengers can ride the solar train and there’s room for luggage and bikes too.

The United Kingdom is also looking for solar to power its rail transport and plans to power 10% of the total country’s routes by it, which conventionally runs on direct current. India no longer an underdog in this field, where an initiative by Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, Government of India, laid a foundation stone for the headquarters of the “International Solar Alliance” in Gurugram. This reflects India’s commitment towards promoting and developing solar energy, solar products and deployment of solar technologies. In this pursuit, Indian Railways launched first solar powered DEMU (Diesel Electrical Multiple Unit) train on 14th July 2017. A total of 16 solar panels, each producing 300 Wp are fitted in six coaches. The solar energy will primarily be utilized to power on-board services such as lights and fans. Advancing further to this initiative, Indian Railways announced to harness solar energy by utilizing roof-tops of railway stations, buildings, level crossings and lands wherever it is feasible. Rail ministry has plans to generate 1000 MW solar power in the next five years.

Though solar powered Australian or Indian train is still more of a proof of concept but we assume that it will deliver real benefits by reducing traffic and attracting public interest towards green and clean energy.

Hydrogen fueled Railways

Recently, Hydrogen Fuel Cells being greener way to power vehicles, attracted attention of scientific fraternity to the large extent due to having only byproducts are heat and water vapor, therefore highlighting hydrogen fuel cells a truly zero-emission locomotive technology. Though, the technology for exploiting hydrogen as a fuel is in its infancy, its future is incredibly bright paving a way to be strong candidate as alternate for fossil fuel.

A Hydrogen Fuel Cell is a device that generates electrical power by chemically converting a fuel (hydrogen) into electricity. The continuous generation of electricity is made sure by constant feeding of fuel and oxygen to the electrochemical cell. The combination of oxygen and ionized hydrogen in a cell leads to the chemical reaction thereby generating electricity. That makes the cell a promising energy source that produces zero emissions leaving byproduct as water. It is estimated that Hydrogen fuel powered trains can travel up to 1,000 km on a single tank of hydrogen, achieving top speeds of 140 kmh. Once hydrogen fuel is exhausted that can be replenished at refueling station likewise we do at gas station. Hence it is environmentally benign way to power vehicles by cutting down carbon emissions.

As far as the technological advances in hydrogen fuel cell is concern, commercial usage of it in railways is cost-prohibitive, so extensive research is helping to cut down the cost of hydrogen. The technology behind hydrogen fuel cells is improving by the day. So much to it, world’s first hydrogenpowered train is already running in Germany since September 2018. If everything goes well, Germany is planning to introduce another 14 hydrogen trains by 2021 to her fleet and France to debut its first by 2022. Apart from railway, hydrogen fuel finds application in cars, buses trucks etc. It also can be used as backup power source for data centers, critical computers and communication networks. The days are not farfetched where running trains on hydrogen fuel would be cheapest way than running on diesel or any other mean.

Other Energy Sources

A step forward towards the commitment of Government of India to reduce carbon foot print, Indian Railways initiated a plan to revamp the total system and objectives on which it was running traditionally. Recently a locomotive was introduced which will run on dual energy sources such as CNG and diesel. Besides, railway is planning to roll out LNG-based locomotive later this year. So much of efforts are being taken into research and design of environmentally benign energy sources such as biodiesel, for railways, by collaborating with foreign firms. A massive project-“Waste to Energy” undertaken by Indian railways is already in working stage near Jaipur Railway Station. The project involves segregation of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. It is estimated that one ton of bio-degradable waste would generate 100 units of electricity, which in turn be utilized for suitable services at/near railway stations, if not to run whole train.

The other ways to harvest energy for railways are, vibration energy from tracks, train induced responses in bridges, capturing the energy produced by trains braking, novel acoustic energy harvesting noise barrier (AEHNB) for converting acoustic energy of the noise from running high-speed trains to electricity, exploitation of piezoelectric materials for energy harvesting, electricity generation from bio-waste, etc. On a last note, a recent report on fuelling a car on water and aluminum, spread a wave of enthusiasm among the scientific community. The process uses electrochemical reactions to produce electricity. The graphene rod and aluminum metal plate generates electricity with water. The generated electricity is fed to electric motor that fuels and drives it. Though many technologies are more of a proof-of-concept, many may not see light of second day but still they show a ray of hope for a robust substitute to existing energy sources available.

To summarize, Railway is being most convenient and popular mode of transport, demands huge consumption of fuels such as diesel, thereby polluting the environment. The growing scarcity of fossil fuels prompted scientific community to seek alternative energy sources which are environmentally benign.

This article gathers technological innovation in the field of green and modern energy sources which are used to power railways. The wind being most abundantly available everywhere could be harnessed to generate electricity. The Netherlands have taken the lead and become the first country to run trains solely powered by wind energy. A promising step of Indian railways toward “green energy mission”, planning to light 50 railway stations across the country on either wind or solar energy. Forthcoming advancements in turbine mounted on trains would definitely pave a way towards sustainable energy future of the globe. Accelerated developments in silicon/nanotechnology made running train solely on solar energy possible. Australia, a global leader in this field, demonstrated viability by lining solar panels on the carriage roof. In this pursuit, Indian Railways launched first solar powered DEMU last year where solar energy is utilized to power on-board services such as lights and fans. Hydrogen Fuel Cells being greener way to power vehicles, has successfully implemented to fuel train in Germany. The fuel cells are considered as a promising energy source that produces zero emissions leaving byproduct as water. The days are not farfetched where running trains on hydrogen fuel would be cheapest way than running on diesel or any other mean.

Among other energy sources, LNG or CNG based locomotives proved as attractive and efficient candidates. Harnessing energy from biomass, vibration energy from tracks, train induced responses in bridges, capturing the energy produced by trains breaking, exploitation of acoustic energy for electricity and utility of piezoelectric materials for energy harvesting are the technologies which could be workable in smaller scale. The energy produced, could be used to many on-board services, if not running whole train.

In nutshell, these technological advancements in energy harnessing techniques for railways by various means would assist in reduction of CO2 footprint enormously and set out an example for other sectors to follow. The developments in this field have potential to attract high level foreign investments, generating new jobs and creating local supply chains. The collective efforts would impart sustainable, low-carbon path that will confront climate change, improve human health, and foster prosperity for all. The green energy fueled railways would set the stage for sustainable rail transport of the future creating a landmark in the industry’s history.


Authors :

  • Ajam C. Shaikh Vice-Principal and Assistant Professor
  • Vishwasinha V. Bhosale Assistant Professor
  • Ratnakar D. Sakhare Assistant Professor

MAEER’s MIT College of Railway Engineering & Research, Jamgaon, Barshi, District-Solapur 413401, Maharashtra, India

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