Chain of Thought

Fuel Cells: Objections Less Sustainable

It seems the automotive world has been getting all the headlines when it comes to sustainable energy sources. However, I contend much of the progress in proving a particular form of alternative energy has been made off-road—with industrial trucks. And for those naysayers who cite the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure as the reason fuel cells will never go mainstream as battery-power has, I ask: what about the potential battery waste stream?

Sure electric cars are green—until they reach the end of their life in a few years and something has to be done with all those batteries. Market research firm Frost & Sullivan expects as many as 500,000 depleted battery packs a year will enter the waste stream by the early 2020s. Whether that waste stream will be handled responsibly is the big question. If urban miners can make a profit from some of the metals they find in it, they might help clean it up.

But Eric Jensen thinks fuel cell developments in the lift truck world might give automakers a good excuse to take another look at fuel cells. Jensen is director of new technology research and development for Crown Equipment Corp., the New Bremen, Ohio-based lift truck manufacturer. He says many of the biggest breakthroughs in fuel cell durability have already come through the material handling world.

“Our demand for lifecycle is greater than the auto industry,” he told me. “Our machines will easily clock 20,000 hours before they're retired. A car will typically go 5-6,000 hours, unless you're one of these guys who can get 350,000 miles out of a car.”

He adds that the lift truck industry is free of the automobile industry's conundrum of car and power technologies being developed in isolation in hopes that they'll eventually hook up gracefully.

“Since the operator of the fuel cell also owns the lift truck, the fuel cell and the fuel supply, he has the entire basket all to himself, where in the auto industry they build the car and hope there's a fuel supply available,” he says. “The material handling industry has been able to solve that chicken or egg problem. There are more fuel cell powered lift truck running around in North America than there are automobiles—maybe 200-300 cars vs over 1,000 fuel cell trucks.”

The Coca-Cola Bottling Co.'s Charlotte, N.C. production center is using 35 of those fuel cell trucks. Crown recently sold Coke on using fuel-cell-powered counterbalanced lift trucks at this plant where traditionally internal combustion engine lift trucks would have been the vehicles of choice to move and lift their 6500-pound-loads. This was both an environmental move and a cost-savings gambit for Coke. Besides the fact there are no fumes being pumped into the work environment, there are significant labor savings by eliminating battery charging cycles. Hydrogen refueling takes approximately two to five minutes while replacing a depleted battery can take as long as 40 minutes, and according to Jensen, batteries used in an operation like Coke's might need to be changed with as little as six hours of run time on them.

Jensen believes that by 2016 fuel cells will be better integrated into industry as well as into lift trucks.

“There won't be any external controls hanging on the outside of the truck,” he predicts. “You'll roll the fuel cell in, plug the power cable in, plug the data cable to the truck and the truck and the fuel cell will act as a single unit.”

If only the operators of these vehicles—cars and lift trucks—could act as single-mindedly we'd have far fewer wrecks going into the waste stream with all those batteries.

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