University and Industry collaborate to demonstrate at COP26 how hydrogen technology can decarbonise the railways

HydroFLEX COP26 UoB Day_720

Engineers at the University of Birmingham, with their industry partners Porterbrook, are demonstrating the potential of hydrogen to transform rail transport at the United Nations COP26 Climate Change Summit in Glasgow.

The team from the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) has been showcasing the hydrogen fuel technology used to power HydroFLEX, the UK’s first mainline-approved hydrogen-powered train.

Among the guests was Lord Karan Bilimoria, Chancellor of the University of Birmingham and CBI President. Lord Bilimoria said: “Ambitious pledges on decarbonisation must be backed up by action and collaborations between universities and industry sectors are key to this. That’s why it is great to see the success of the University of Birmingham and Porterbrook in delivering HydroFLEX. It’s a huge achievement.”

The technology - developed by BCRRE in partnership with Porterbrook and supported by Innovate UK - comprises a hybrid hydrogen fuel cell and battery system retrofitted onto a Class 319 electric multiple unit, creating a world-first bi-mode hydrogen-electric train capable of travelling over both electrified and unelectrified railway infrastructure.

The hydrogen fuel cells convert air into electricity and water with the batteries providing traction power to the train.  By utilising green hydrogen (produced with renewable electricity), the fuel cells are emission-free and generating clean electricity to propel the train.

The train was designed to deploy the hydrogen and battery capabilities as well as retaining its capability to draw electricity from overhead wires.  At COP26 it will be running on electricity from the overhead wires and batteries to enable visitors to take a closer look at how the hydrogen technology works.

Stuart Hillmansen, Reader in Railway Traction Systems at the University of Birmingham, said: “With the mainline testing of HydroFLEX carried out last year, we have successfully demonstrated that hydrogen fuel cell and battery technologies are ready for commercialisation, and will be an important element of the UK’s work to decarbonise our railways.

“This could not have been achieved without the highly successful working relationships we have with our industrial partners.  Working with Porterbrook, and the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN), we have been able to take our technology through the development stages and into full rail application.  It is very exciting seeing this technology being deployed on the first passenger and freight train services and we look forward to seeing further applications of our research in the future.”

Mary Grant, CEO of Porterbrook, said: “We are incredibly proud to work alongside some truly great British businesses, whose skills and expertise have helped us take HydroFLEX to COP26.  This reflects a high level of collaboration across the private sector which in turn has been supported by our Network Rail and University of Birmingham partners.  Seeing HydroFLEX in action in Glasgow is a true milestone moment as we accelerate the rail industry’s journey towards Net Zero.”

Alex Burrows, Director of Enterprise & Innovation at BCRRE, said: “This 3 year project has been a fantastic collaboration between the University of Birmingham and Porterbrook to prove and demonstrate the application of hydrogen technology to the railway.  We have been able to showcase our innovation capabilities at the University and the role of the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) to facilitate effective collaboration like this.  Now the HydroFLEX project is complete we look forward to further collaborations with industry that can emulate the success we have had with HydroFLEX over the last 3 years.”

Notes to editor:

  • For media enquiries please contact Beck Lockwood, Press Office, University of Birmingham, tel: +44 (0)781 3343348.
  • The University of Birmingham is ranked amongst the world’s top 100 institutions. Its work brings people from across the world to Birmingham, including researchers, teachers and more than 6,500 international students from over 150 countries.
  • BCRRE is Europe’s largest academic-based group delivering railway science and education. With over 160 academics, researchers and professional support staff, BCRRE provides world-class research and thought leadership within railways, and offers an expanding portfolio of high-quality education programmes, including Rail and Rail Systems Level 6 and 7 degree apprenticeships. In 2018 BCRRE became lead partner in the £92m UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) and in 2019, it absorbed the activities of the Rail Alliance into its offering, increasing its breadth of support for innovation and growth in the rail industry. Contact BCRRE.