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All Aboard the Hydrogen Train

Stan Thompson has a better idea


Stan Thompson is passionate about air quality and new technologies, and he's particularly passionate about bringing hydrogen-powered commuter rail to this area. Better yet, the retired strategic planner from BellSouth has been doing something about it, networking with everyone from engineers to government officials to speed up the day when his vision becomes a reality.

With the EPA recently naming Mecklenburg and seven surrounding counties in violation of the new ozone standard for air quality, a need for cleaner, renewable energy has never been greater. Thompson and his allies say that although hydrogen-powered commuter rail is at least a few years down the road, it could be a big source of relief for the region's smog.

Americans are no strangers to technology-based visions. After all, we've all long been promised a helicopter in every driveway and a robot maid in every closet. But experts say Thompson's idea is one futuristic innovation that appears as if it will actually happen: hydrogen-powered commuter trains. This may not sound as sexy as an automated maid or personal flying vehicles, but the implications are profound and far-reaching. For decades there has been talk of hydrogen -- a tasteless, odorless, colorless chemical compound that is one of the basic building blocks of water -- replacing both gas and oil as fuel. There have been some strides made over the years with hydrogen-powered vehicles of one kind or another, but only recently have we neared the point where hydrogen technology can be realistically applied to large-scale commercial transit.

Thompson's vision is that such a project -- the first of its kind in the world -- could get its start along the 28-mile North Corridor commuter rail system linking Charlotte to Mooresville. There's still research and development to be done, and other hurdles to overcome, but a group of activists is trying to get all the pieces to fall into place. If they succeed, "hydrail," as local supporters have dubbed it, could dramatically impact the entire Charlotte region in terms of transportation, the environment, tourism, economic development, and perhaps even the state's place in history.

Stan Thompson has been a longtime activist for improving Charlotte's air quality, having worked with the EPA since the early 90s on reducing congestion as a way to abate pollution. When he retired to Mooresville in 1996, he joined the Charlotte Chamber's Transportation Committee, as well as Voices and Choices -- a regional non-profit organization that promotes economic and environmental sustainability -- to continue trying to solve our air quality problems. But Thompson stresses that the issue of clean air isn't just a matter of legislation, sanctions or administrative law.

"It's a matter of life and death," Thompson says. "Both my parents died in Charlotte of lung disease. I very nearly died here of asthma when I was in third grade. I've long been concerned about Charlotte's collision course with non-attainment. Before I moved to Mooresville, Charlotte was my home. My friends are here. Air quality is a personal thing."

It was with this impassioned mindset that Thompson first brought up the idea of hydrail during a 2000 Charlotte Chamber meeting. Although the idea was dismissed as not being technologically viable, Thompson began researching and networking in earnest, talking with scientists, environmentalists, light rail experts and policy makers across the country.

Thompson also got together with friend and longtime Mooresville resident Jim Bowman, a retired aeronautical engineer who once worked on NASA's Lunar Lander program. Bowman also believed in the idea, and his in-depth, hands-on engineering experience complemented Thompson's theoretical approach. Together, the two men came up with the term "hydrail," and began spreading the word about their evolving idea.

As the hydrail project gained momentum, Bill Thunberg, Economic Development VP for the Mooresville/South Iredell Chamber, asked Thompson to chair Mooresville's Transportation Committee.

"When I first met Stan, I was looking for a way for the people and different agencies of this region to bring their resources together and help improve the quality of life," Thunberg says. "When Stan started talking about hydrail, I immediately latched on. This project has so much potential, and the synergies are obvious. I believe the impact in this region could be a lot stronger than the biotech industry, which is being touted at the state level."

Specifically, Thunberg sees the project creating in the area a "Hydrogen Valley USA," and points out that there is renewable hydroelectric power available from a number of sources along or near the North Corridor rail line, including Cowan's Ford Dam and McGuire Nuclear Station. "It's an entirely new industry," Thunberg says. "There's all kinds of economic development opportunities in terms of new businesses, jobs and tourism. It would be completely unique."

"I think it's a great idea," says Mooresville Town Manager Rick McLean. "It's certainly worth pursuing. Thompson and some of the folks he's working with are well qualified and seem to think that while it's a longterm project, it is feasible. The town of Mooresville certainly supports it. We'd love to see a hydrogen-powered commuter train come to Mooresville."

Jason Wagner, coordinator for Centralina Clean Fuels Coalition (CCFC), an agency that strives to improve air quality, reduce petroleum dependence, and expand alternative fuel use and technology, also believes in the project.

"Hydrogen fueling for transportation is a ways off but is likely to play a major role in improving our air quality and dependence on oil in the long run," Wagner says. "We see the (hydrail project) as making hydrogen fueling distribution logistics and costs more feasible in our region, but how do we get there? At some point somebody has to take a risk and step outfront. Stan is an example of someone willing to do that."

Experts say it can work
Local boosterism is all well and good, but is this all just a big pipe dream and wishful thinking? Not when you start listening to what some of the folks around the country Thompson has been tirelessly networking have to say. Indeed, many stress that the need to meet the growing demand for energy while at the same time producing less environmental impact is one of the most important issues now facing the country.

Vehicle Projects LLC, a company based in Denver, Colorado, built the world's first hydrogen fuel cell-powered locomotive. Completed in 2002, the locomotive pulls ore cars in underground metal mining. The company also recently started developing a 109 metric-ton fuel cell-powered locomotive -- the largest in the world -- for the US Army to perform various military and commercial railway functions.

Dr. Arnold Miller, the president of Vehicle Projects, is considered one of the industry's pioneers. Prior to Vehicle Projects, Miller was a professor at the Colorado School of Mines, and he conducted a study examining different niche markets for fuel cell vehicles to determine which one was most commercially viable. "

Cars are difficult because they have to be fast, cheap, look beautiful and have plenty of trunk space," says Miller. "But a niche market like a locomotive is much easier."

Miller has had many discussions with Thompson concerning his hydrail project, and believes it has many benefits. Namely, because fuel cells are based on electrochemistry rather than combustion, they're efficient, quiet, and have zero emissions and so would help dramatically reduce both air and noise pollution. Moreover, Miller says that fuel cell vehicles are "the wave of the future," and will help solve many of society's problems. "It could increase national energy security by reducing our dependency on imported oil," Miller says. "We can produce hydrogen here by many different inexhaustible means. Plus, fuelcells as a rule of thumb are twice as efficient as engines. So even if the fuel is more expensive, you're going to have to use about half as much."

Miller says the technology will also make mass transit far more time efficient. "If you want to take a trip from Charlotte to Atlanta, it would take you more time to fly compared to a high-speed train by the time you get to the airport, go through security, rent a car, and drive into the city. But if you have a high-speed train that goes from city center to city center, you'd be there much faster. I know this because I do it all the time in Europe. It's very convenient."

Also paying close attention to Thompson's hydrail initiative is Dr. Linda Rimer, the US EPA Region IV Liaison to NC and SC. Rimer explains that the EPA is chiefly concerned with hydrail in terms of how it might fit into their quality of life initiative called SEQL -- Sustainable Environment for the Quality of Life. SEQL's goal is to develop a regional strategy to maintain a higher quality of life in terms of clean air and water, good jobs, land use, transportation and energy. After Thompson gave a briefing to Rimer and others at the EPA last year about hydrail, she says it was clear it could play an important role in her group's overall vision.

"Hydrail helps with transportation, reducing congestion, improving air quality and creating jobs," Rimer says. "The EPA is mostly looking for incentives that would make local governments and communities cooperate across boundaries and for companies to adopt cleaner technologies so the whole region could have a higher quality of life. A hydrail plan in Mooresville could demonstrate the technology that would promote a more rapid advancement towards hydrogen-fueled trains. And there are certainly air quality benefits to be gained if this technology is developed and adopted on a broader scale."

Another of Thomson's key supporters is the Department of Energy (DOE). David Dunagan, DOE's transportation project manager in Atlanta, says hydrail has potential in terms of how it fits into their ongoing alternative fuel programs. "Our agency has a tremendous amount of ongoing research and development on alternative fuel materials, catalysts, storage, production and conversion. Once we get further with research and into the actual application -- trucks, locomotives, etc. -- we will be in a much better position.

"The promise for this is tremendous if they can overcome the technological barriers," Dunagan continued. "It sounds very intriguing, and we have encouraged Thompson. I certainly think he may be onto something, and I think it can definitely happen in a few years."

Researchers at UNC-Charlotte hope to facilitate that possibility. UNCC is one of several major universities participating in DOE-funded hydrogen research projects. Dr. Hilary Inyang is the director of UNCC's Global Institute for Energy and Environmental Systems (GIEES). Inyang is leading a research team which has done preliminary work on the production of hydrogen through a process called "plasma electrolysis," which Inyang says could have general applications for projects such as hydrail. "It could produce the energy that at some later point could be introduced into the hydrail system," Inyang explains.

Currently, hydrogen is removed from water by a process called hydrolysis, which involves running an electric current through the water. But the process is time-consuming and requires enormous amounts of electrical power, making hydrogen a costly energy source.

Inyang's plasma electrolysis project is looking into a process that doesn't heat the water, but rather creates a gas that forms on top of the water, from which the hydrogen is derived. "If hydrogen is produced in plasma, then its collection efficiency is much higher compared to hydrolysis," Inyang says.

Prior to coming to UNCC, Inyang was the Chair of the Engineering Committee of the Science Advisory Board of the US EPA. He is also taking part in several global research and technical activities on energy, infrastructure development and the environment.

Inyang says he's had many discussions with Thompson about hydrail, and it's an initiative he believes in. "It is a viable project, and it will happen one day. I have no doubt. It's not really an issue of the technology being developed itself, but an issue of technology integration. The increase in renewable energy is undeniable and inevitable."

Inyang hopes to receive a new DOE grant in the fall in order to carry out the second phase of his plasma electrolysis study.

The question of cost
Once all the technological requirements are worked out, there are still many factors involved in implementing a viable hydrogen-powered light rail commuter system. Many of these factors are the same ones Charlotte already faces in terms of light rail -- most notably the cost, and if we have the population and infrastructure to support such a system.

"The fuel cells are more efficient, but you have to balance that with the fact that the hydrogen fuels would be more expensive," Miller says. "But price depends on scale of manufacture. So if you have a large market, the price of fuel and fuel cells will come down. One of the problems we have here in the US with high-speed rail is that our population density is not as high as in Europe and Japan, and the infrastructure costs are very high for high-speed rail."

Miller says Vehicle Projects has a business plan that calls for demonstrating a hydrogen-powered commuter rail application in 2009. As you might imagine, there are other cities studying the viability of such a program, including Chicago and Long Island, both of which have long traditions of commuter rail, and greater, denser populations. In other words, NC has plenty of competition, but Miller says he isn't favoring any city over another. "At this point we just have to wait and see"

Ron Tober, CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS), says that while the hydrail technology looks promising, CATS is currently focusing on trying to move ahead with the commuter rail project in the North Corridor and have commuter trains in operation in the next three to five years. Tober says they are having discussions with Norfolk Southern (which owns that section of rail) about purchasing or some right-of-way agreement. Depending on how those talks go, he expects the North Corridor to be open and operating sometime between 2007-2009. Thompson, incidentally, stresses that hydrail would not interfere with CATS' North Corridor plans, but would hopefully be tested and introduced down the line.

"I think it's (hydrail) much farther off into the future for us to get involved," Tober says. "We need to make sure we have technology that's going to provide reliable and safe service. There needs to be more development. We support what Thompson is doing, and the concept is good, particularly in this area. But at this point we're not counting on it."

Mayor McCrory's office, where Thompson presented his hydrail project last year, is also taking a wait and see position. "The Mayor's Office is open to seeing how this technology demonstrates its ability to be used," says McCrory's assistant, Dennis Marstall. "There's still a lot more to be done, but it's something we'll certainly consider and are interested to see if it becomes a viable technology."

Meanwhile, Thompson and others continue to tirelessly champion the hydrail initiative in the hopes that when such a project is ready to roll, it will be pulling out of a North Carolina station.

"What Thompson is trying to do is position the area so that when the hydrogen technology becomes commercially feasible we'll be the first demonstration project," says Dunagan of the DOE. "And that has a lot of validity to it."

Contact Sam Boykin at [email protected] or 704-944-3623.

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