Did Warren Buffett just corner the railroad market? Nah. He says he bought Burlington Northern Santa Fe because he likes to play with trains.
Of course, he might have noticed that trains use diesel engines to drive generators to make electricity, which in turn powers the motors that propel the train. Could it have occurred to Buffett that those same motors might be powered with electricity made from running hydrogen through a fuel cell? Might this eliminate that huge diesel-electric drive of the trains, and do so at zero pollution and zero greenhouse gases?
Where would Buffett find the hydrogen? How about the dozens of industrial plants around the country that have hydrogen around as a byproduct of the other things they make. Could he not fill his tank cars there and haul them to the train yards ready to be hitched to trains and power them across the country, and even bring them back without a refill.
Might Buffett have also noticed the bigger fish in the sea: That inevitable hydrogen infrastructure. Unlike oil and natural gas, hydrogen is not easily transported with pipelines. This means it will have to be shipped in tanks, and the cheapest way to ship is still with rail. By the time the hydrogen infrastructure gets underway, Buffett should know something about hydrogen, having hauled it around to power his trains.
Could things get any better for Buffett? How about tanks that hold hydrogen in non-gas form, at low pressure and room temperature. Concrete steps in that direction were taken last week by the engineers at Massachusetts University with their mathematical model for nanotube hydrogen storage. A similar model produced dramatic results last month with metal hydride tanks. And just this June engineers at the University of Delaware achieved storage yields equal to nanotubes and metal hydrides using nothing more than burnt chicken feathers as raw material.
To be sure none of these things occurred to Buffett in buying Burlington Northern Santa Fe. He just likes playing with trains.