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Siemens and Deutsche Bahn are planning to check a hydrogen-powered prepare in Germany

The logo of Deutsche Bahn AG on the rail tower, Potsdamer Platz, Berlin.

Christoph Soeder | Image Alliance | Getty Images

Siemens Mobility and Deutsche Bahn have presented plans to develop and test a hydrogen fuel cell train. This is the latest example of large companies turning to technology that could have a significant impact on the environmental footprint of transportation systems.

According to a joint announcement published earlier this week, the process is set to begin in 2024 and include a train ride between Tübingen, Horb and Pforzheim in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg.

The prototype known as the Mireo Plus H will use a fuel cell and lithium-ion battery. The range consists of two cars and extends up to 600 kilometers or a little less than 373 miles. It will have a top speed of 160 kilometers per hour.

When the one-year-old pilot starts, the hydrogen train will take the place of a diesel train. It is to be hoped that the experiment will save around 330 tons of carbon dioxide.

The collaboration will also aim to work on the related infrastructure that the train will require.

For this purpose, Deutsche Bahn will partially convert one of its maintenance workshops for the maintenance of the train and develop a filling station for the vehicle.

Electrolysis splits water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter being compressed and then stored in a mobile unit. The electricity used in this process will come from renewable sources.

The initiative is supported by the state government of Baden-Württemberg. The funding is provided by the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure.

Currently, around 1,300 diesel-powered trains are used by Deutsche Bahn on regional routes. In addition, around 40% of the 33,000-kilometer network is not yet electrified.

"In particular on non-electrified routes, the drive from hydrogen fuel cells can become a climate-friendly alternative to diesel drive," said Winfried Hermann, the Baden-Württemberg transport minister, in a statement on Monday. "Whether with overhead lines or hydrogen – the key factor is that the energy comes from renewable sources," he added.

One of many projects

The partnership between Siemens Mobility and Deutsche Bahn comes at a time when a number of projects on the subject of hydrogen-powered transport are taking shape.

Companies like Alstom have also developed trains that use hydrogen fuel cells, while other examples include airplanes, buses, and cars.

In comments emailed to CNBC, a spokesman for Transport & Environment, a campaign group focused on clean transportation, highlighted the need to ensure that hydrogen is used in a mix of transportation options.

"The railways in Europe are already largely electrified, so the big environmental gains cannot be made here," they said.

"We need hydrogen in transportation where batteries are not possible," they added. "First and foremost, this means shipping and aviation. The race is wide open for long-haul trucks."

The spokesman continued, "The biggest obstacle for us is to make sure that hydrogen is made from clean electricity. Making hydrogen from fossil gas is not clean. We need to make sure it is based on additional, renewable electricity."

Interest in green hydrogen – a term that refers to hydrogen produced from renewable sources such as wind and sun – has increased in recent years.

A number of key players such as Orsted and BP are running projects in this area, while the European Union has put forward plans to install 40 gigawatts of renewable hydrogen electrolysers and produce up to 10 million tons of renewable hydrogen by 2030.

To put the EU's goals in context, the International Energy Agency says that global hydrogen production is currently around 70 million tonnes per year.

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