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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."