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Date of Award


Document Type

Master's report

Degree Name

Master of Science in Civil Engineering (MS)

College, School or Department Name

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

First Advisor

Jeffrey Lidicker


Recent changes in the cost and availability of natural gas (NG) as compared to diesel have sparked interest at all levels of the commercial shipping sector. In particular, Class 1 heavy-duty rail has been researching NG as a supplement to diesel combustion. This study investigates the relative economic and emissions advantage of making use of the energy efficiencies if combustion is circumvented altogether by use of fuel cell (FC) technologies applied to NG.

FC technology for the transport sector has primarily been developed for the private automobile. However, FC use in the automobile sector faces considerable economic and logistical barriers such as cost, range, durability, and refueling infrastructure. The heavy-duty freight sector may be a more reasonable setting to introduce FC technology to the transportation market. The industry has shown interest in adopting NG as a potential fuel by already investing in NG infrastructure and locomotives.

The two most promising FC technologies are proton exchange membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs) and solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs). SOFCs are more efficient and capable of accepting any kind of fuel, which makes them particularly attractive.

The rail industry can benefit from the adoption of FC technology through reduced costs and emissions, as well as limiting dependence on diesel, which accounts for a large portion of operation expenses for Class 1 railroads.

This report provides an economic feasibility analysis comparing the use of PEMFCs and SOFCs in heavy freight rail transport applications. The scope is to provide insight into which technologies could be pursued by the industry and to prioritize technologies that need further development.

Initial results do not show economic potential for NG and fuel cells in locomotion, but some minimal potential for reduced emissions is seen. Various technology configurations and market scenarios analyzed could provide savings if the price of LNG is decreased and the price of diesel increases. The most beneficial areas of needed research include technology development for the variable output of SOFCs, and hot start-up optimization.