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By Denise Chow

A pair of trains that are among the first in the world to run on hydrogen entered service in Germany this week, offering an environmentally friendly alternative to diesel locomotives that belch harmful exhaust into the atmosphere.

The Coradia iLint trains are running along a 62-mile corridor between towns in Lower Saxony in the northern part of the country. They have fuel cells that generate electricity via chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen and batteries that store excess electricity until it's needed, according to Alstom, the French company that made the trains.

The bright blue trains are considered zero-emissions vehicles because they release only water and steam. Diesel-powered trains, like the ones the new trains replace, emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, as well as particulates that can cause a range of health problems.

The Coradia iLint train built by the French company Alstom, has fuel cells that generate electricity from chemical reactions between hydrogen gas and oxygen.Rene Frampe

The trains can reach speeds of up to 87 miles per hour and travel up to 600 miles without refueling — about equivalent to the range of diesel trains, said Shawn Litster, a professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

The hydrogen used to power the trains will be pumped aboard from a 40-foot-high steel container erected at one of the stations along the route.

Alstom plans to build 14 more of the hydrogen-powered trains for Lower Saxony at a cost of 81 million Euros ($94.6 million). While the trains cost more than diesel trains, they're cheaper to operate — in part because hydrogen fuel is easy to produce, according to Litster.

“You can get it from renewable electricity, so with wind farms, solar farms, dams — anything that can generate electricity can generate hydrogen,” Litster said. It’s also possible to produce hydrogen from natural gas, he added, so “there’s geographically a lot of flexibility around where you get the hydrogen from.”

Litster said hydrogen-powered trains are a good option for Germany, Japan and other nations with limited petroleum reserves — as well as for the U.S. He said Amtrak, which offers passenger rail service across the country, could replace its diesel train-dominated fleets with hydrogen trains, and that these zero-emissions vehicles are a "great opportunity" for the company to adopt greener and more cost-effective technologies.

As the world's largest producer of natural gas, he said, "there's already a large amount of hydrogen being produced in the U.S. annually."

Alstom said other German states and other European countries have expressed interest in hydrogen-powered trains, with France hoping to have its first hydrogen train up and running by 2022, Voice of America reported.

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