Revolutionary mining locomotive being tested in Reno
SPARKS — Scientists and engineers from around the world gathered in northern Nevada recently to get their first look at a groundbreaking new locomotive that runs on hydrogen-generated electricity.
An international government and industry consortium developed the locomotive with help from federal funds secured by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
It is considered to be the first viable commercial use of the new technology, which is perking interest in the mining industry and might someday power passenger vehicles.
The consortium is headed by Denver-based Vehicle Projects, which hopes to produce the locomotives on a large scale within the next few years.
Vehicle Projects president Arnold Miller said the fuel-cell design incorporates the benefits of a battery-powered locomotive with the extra power of a conventional diesel engine.
Best of all, it runs on water, he said.
“The prototype cost about $2 million to develop, and about half of that came from the Department of Energy, thanks to Sen. Harry Reid,” Miller said.
Reid was instrumental through his leadership in the Senate Energy and Water Subcommittee in providing sufficient funding to the Energy Department to undertake the project, Miller said.
“One of the reasons DOE is interested in this project is because we want to advance any applications of hydrogen-powered vehicles,” said Douglas Hooker of DOE’s Office of Project Management, who traveled from Golden, Colo., to witness last month’s demonstration.
Hooker said the Energy Department wants to promote the new technology initially through projects for small-niche markets, such as the mining industry. Officials hope the research will be useful in developing hydrogen-powered passenger vehicles and possibly electricity generation plants.
Hooker said fuel cell-powered passenger vehicles are expected to appear in showrooms in the next few years. But he said the lack of infrastructure, such as refueling stations, will be a problem for some time.
Miller said the absence of emissions are the driving force behind the application of fuel cell vehicles in underground mining. New emissions regulations for the underground workplace are proving difficult to meet with diesel vehicles and the mines where they operate require expensive exhaust systems, he said.
Fuel cells are solid-state devices that directly convert the energy in water into electric power. Because they are based on electrochemistry rather than combustion, fuel cells are efficient, quiet and have zero emissions, Miller said.
Miller and his team plan to continue testing the locomotive in Reno through the end of the month. He said Nevada was chosen as the test site because it has known gold reserves, investment potential and a political and business climate favorable to mining.
Researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno have been studying fuel cell technology for several years and will be involved in surface testing of the vehicle, he said.
Miller anticipates an international market for the locomotive, especially in South Africa, where 10,000 locomotives are in use in diamond mines. He said the European Union has committed $3 billion to develop the technology.