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All Aboard the Hydrogen Train

Stan Thompson has a better idea

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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."


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