China's Hydrogen Trains

Brandon Sutter
December 10, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2015


Fig. 1: A hydrogen fuel train, possibly the wave of the future. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

China is notorious for their pollution concerns. With their huge population and large dependence on coal for their energy uses, their pollution can be seen on the skylines of many of their cities. [1] Since the Industrial Revolution, China's economy has been increasing rapidly such that it uses much of the world's energy. This increase in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions has left China doing all they can to mitigate their footprint while trying to maintain their current economy as it is. One form that emissions can be decreased is in the transportation sector. Current Chinese transportation is not very effective in being efficient with their emissions. Therefore, hydrogen powered trains have been looked into as a possible remediation to this problem. [2] Theoretically, the more efficient energy usage due to using hydrogen gas as the fuel source rather than gas, as well as the carpooling of many people together on these trains, would seem to have a very positive impact on China's transportation. A picture of the train can be seen in Fig. 1. Let's look at the true effects and feasibility of the switch.

How Does the Train Work?

The train is powered by fuel cells on board the train, and the only reactant needed is hydrogen gas. The hydrogen then mixes and reacts with the oxygen to create the electricity needed to power the fuel cells, while also releasing water vapor in the process. Therefore, hydrogen is the only source of an appreciable amount that this process requires, and since hydrogen is such an abundant element, is quite easy to find and harness from the atmosphere. In addition, it only takes a few minutes to charge the hydrogen fuel cell, whereas it could take hours to recharge battery- powered fuel cells. Looking at the positives makes these trains seem economically viable. However, a closer look also reveals some difficulties.

Difficulties of Hydrogen Trains

The main difficulties involved with the usage of hydrogen chains in China is the pricing. The price to operate a hydrogen fuel cell powered automobile, such as a train, can run up to 3x as expensive as their battery fuel celled counterparts. [3] Because of this fact, it is hard to keep costs down in such an economically driven industry like transportation. Refueling could be a problem, as the fuel cell needs to be refueled around every 62 miles, and having enough refueling stations will be a challenge. In addition, China simply doesn't have the current infrastructure in place to support these projects, as there are very few tracks that are currently built that can support these types of trains.


There are certainly many pros to the increase in China's use of hydrogen trains. It is much more environmentally friendly in a country that could certainly use cleaner energy. In addition, this type of technology could make its way into other Chinese sectors, such that hydrogen fuel could be the wave of the future for energy not only for trains, but for transportation as a whole, and eventually into all energy sources. Therefore, there are many advantages to using this technology, but it will take refinement of the techniques used in order to get the cost of the usage down and the infrastructure created to make it available to the everyday citizen.

© Brandon Sutter. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] J. Fallows, "2 Charts That Put the Chinese Pollution Crisis in Perspective," The Atlantic, 18 Apr 14.

[2] E. Bregolat, The Second Chinese Revolution (Palgrave MacMillan, 2015), pp 45-46.

[3] S. Wright, "Foot on the Gas: Hydrogen Powered Cars Hit the Road," The Economist, 18 Nov 14.