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Creators demonstrate HydroFLEX

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The University of Birmingham, alongside industry partners Porterbrook, demonstrated the potential of hydrogen to transform rail transport at the United Nations COP26 Climate Change Summit in Glasgow.

Engineers from the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) have shown a number of guests how hydrogen fuel technology is used to power HydroFLEX, the UK’s first mainline-approved hydrogen-powered train.

Lord Karan Bilimoria, Chancellor of the University of Birmingham and CBI president, standing alongside HydroFLEX.

Among their 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 together 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 Prime Minister dropped in to visit HydroFLEX at COP26, surprising a group of school children.

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 generate clean electricity to propel the train.

The vehicle 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, University of Birmingham.

Reader in railway traction systems at the University of Birmingham, Stuart Hillmansen, 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, Porterbrook.

CEO of Porterbrook, Mary Grant, 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, University of Birmingham.

Director of enterprise & innovation at BCRRE, Alex Burrows, said: “This three 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 three years.”

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