Hydrogen Power From Fantasy to Reality

Hydrogen Power From Fantasy to Reality

Fuel cell technology is like the proverbial wheel. It keeps getting reinvented. Innovators have been trying to tap hydrogen as a viable energy source since the early 1900s, but competing technologies and its own limitations have always stalled their effor

With the new millennium comes a new opportunity for hydrogen power, and a fresh start, largely thanks to material handling applications. While much hoopla has been made about alternative energy sources and how they'll change the automotive world in another generation, today various fuel cell technologies are being put to work in factories and distribution centers, albeit mostly in trial form. That doesn't mean equipment manufacturers aren't preparing to enter real world markets in the near future.

Visitors at this year's MHIA ProMat trade show in Chicago were among the first to see a fuel-cell-powered lift truck prototype from Toyota Material Handling, U.S.A., Inc. (Irvine, Calif., www.toyotaforklift.com). The company has developed a fuel cell hybrid prototype it calls the FCHV-F. Toyota Industries Corp. (TICO) collaborated with Toyota Motor Corporation (TMC) on the hybrid system that shares some of the same components being tested on the automotive side of the business. Although still in the development stage, the vehicle's presence at ProMat indicates that the industrial truck industry is serious about making fuel cells profitable this time around.

"Fuel cell lift trucks require minimal refilling and significantly less maintenance than electric lift trucks, whose batteries must be periodically charged, refilled with water, and replaced," says Cesar Jimenez, electric product planning and product marketing manager for Toyota Material Handling. "In addition, the fuel cell hybrid system ensures constant power delivery and performance, eliminating the reduction in voltage output that occurs as batteries discharge. These and other features make fuel cell lift trucks ideally suited to conditions such as those found at the large distribution centers, where lift trucks often run continuous 24-hour shifts."

This doesn't mean Toyota and its competitors will have an easy time nurturing this new market. Many challenges need to be conquered before the Industrial Truck Association (Washington, D.C., www.indtruck.org) will designate a new classification for fuel-cell-equipped vehicles.

"Currently the costs of fuel cell stack materials are very high and the life cycle of these fuel cell stacks are not at an acceptable level," says Jimenez. "Operations that adopt this new technology will require the installation of hydrogen fuel tanks and refill stations. This infrastructure can be costly."

Fuel-Cell Operating Costs
Battelle (www.battelle.org), an R&D organization based in Columbus, Ohio, conducted a study with the U.S. Dept. of Energy to find out just how costly fuel cells would be in lift-truck applications. It focused on proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell systems because those are the ones with the most marketable designs for industrial trucks. Battelle did a combination of primary and secondary research, including surveys of users in various market segments.

"We found a certain level of dissatisfaction the users had with battery-powered vehicles," says Kathya Mahadevan, a Battelle research scientist. Most dissatisfied were users in high throughput retail distribution operations and other heavy-use applications. "They don't like the amount of time it takes to swap out a battery and they have general safety concerns about the battery in terms of acid spills and weight," she adds.

Battelle looked at the lifecycle cost of two types of industrial trucks: pallet trucks and sit-down riders for continuous operations within a distribution center. It took one truck from each class and assigned two batteries per truck for change-outs. The researchers concluded that walkie pallet trucks are currently more competitive for fuel cell applications than riders. (See comparison table.)

On the sit-down rider tuck, the fuel cell model was slightly more expensive to operate than its battery-operated counterpart. The calculations took into account the net present value of the total cost of owning and operating the system over a 15-year lifecycle with hydrogen costs at $5 per kg. The PEM fuel-cell powered sit-down truck cost $129,118, without tax incentives. The battery-powered sitdown with two batteries cost $115,631. The battery-powered pallet truck, with two batteries, cost $145,193, without tax incentives, for the same period. The fuel cell model cost $76,075.

Even when incentives were factored into the sit-down lift truck formula, battery power came out slightly ahead of the fuel cell, which was then calculated at $121,570. As pallet trucks use smaller PEM fuel cell stacks, the cost of the fuel cell replacement has less of an impact on the lifecycle cost over a 15-year lifetime. Furthermore, the cost of changing out batteries has a significant impact on the competitiveness of the fuel cell against battery-based alternatives. The bottom line: higher labor costs and long battery replacement times make fuel cells more attractive. Where can the industry go from here?

"Manufacturers need to focus on the durability of the fuel cell so owners don't have to replace it that often," says Mahadevan. "Durability improvements will come from improving membrane life and production savings will come from reducing the amount of platinum you find in the fuel cell. OEMs still aren't ready for redesigning their entire system. It's easier just to replace the battery and that's what designers are focused on, replacing the battery and providing for the counterweight. Maybe people are waiting to see if fuel cells will actually take off before sitting down to redesign the entire system."

Lift truck manufacturers have been teaming up with a variety of fuel cell manufacturers to find a winning fuel-cell formula. Some are betting on battery replacement, but others see greater opportunity in hybrids that combine fuel cells with batteries.

"Fuel cells don't like to produce surges of power, and the solid oxide—a high-temperature variety—doesn't like to turn on and off," explains Benson Lee, CEO of Technology Management, Inc. (Cleveland, www.tmifuelcellsystems.com). TMI is commercializing a high-temperature, ceramic solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC), originally developed at British Petroleum (www.bp.com), into multiple markets through several strategic alliances. SOFC systems convert common fuels into electricity and a high-grade heat.

TMI has demonstrated independent operation of small-scale systems operating on natural gas, JP-8 kerosene, diesel, biodiesel, ethanol, biogas and propane. The TMI design is compact enough to be shipped overnight by common carrier and eliminates some of the fuel compatibility challenges posed by hydrogen-only devices.

"If we were to go into an application where you have a fluctuating load, we would couple ourselves to a battery, ultracap or some type of device which could provide the peaks when required," says Lee. "The fuel cell would carry the continuous base load. In a car the hybrid involves a battery and an engine, which kicks on and off depending on when you need it. On a lift truck, which has a fluctuating load when the vehicle is in use, the same holds true. You won't get rid of the batteries but you might have a more fuel efficient source of steady electrical power for recharging that battery or even supplementing it slightly when it has to deliver some power."

In these hybrid applications fuelcell technology developers are also moving away from the lead-acid batteries to which everyone has become accustomed.

"We're using the same nickel metal hydride batteries that the hybrid cars are using," says Tom Hoying, v.p. of sales, U.S. operations, for Cellex Power Products (Richmond, B.C., Canada, www.cellexpower.com). "The car industry is moving away from lead acid. Our target customers move high throughput food and mass retail merchandise. Pallet trucks will be the first product we commercialize and then we'll follow that up with stand-up, narrow aisle and dock equipment.

"The pallet truck application provides a key driver of productivity for the customer," Hoying continues. "The customer gets an increase in productivity and it requires the least amount of hydrogen." Wal-Mart has already conducted tests with pallet trucks equipped with Cellex fuel cells (See "Wal-Mart Gives Fuel Cells a Test Drive," MHM, Aug. 2005.)

Still, Frank Trotter, president and CEO of General Hydrogen Corp. (www.generalhydrogen.com), which is also based in Richmond, B.C., cautions people not to count out the lead acid battery. His company is focusing on the larger end of the lift truck market, and selling a lead acid battery replacement pack. It is targeting class 1 and 2 (electric counter-balanced and order picker) lift trucks and AGVs right now.

"The real feature that's important is run time, having the power you need when you need it and being able to operate without having to stop to refill the hydrogen," Trotter says. "We believe the hybrid with the battery involved doesn't achieve the length of runtime required. Our system is a fuel cell with ultracapacitors, so it's a hybrid itself. We use the ultracapacitors because they provide high energy burst release and rapid recovery. They're perfect for the startup of the truck and the heavy lifting, for large current draw, and then it runs at a normal rate after that."

Because his product provides constant power output through the entire operating cycle, Trotter says there's less wear and tear on the machinery, so there's a noticeable reduction in the amount of repairs needed and in the replacement of drive component parts like contactors and brushes.

"Our cycles are measured in two or three times normal battery life cycle," he says. "If you're a heavy user getting four or five hours of life between charges, we're going to be looking at 10-15 hours of operating time with a fuel cell."

Managing Hydrogen Fuel
This brings us to one of the more critical issues for putting fuel cells to work in DCs and factories across the United States: the hydrogen infrastructure. It boils down to two strategies: make it or buy it. Mark Schiller,
v.p. of business development for Proton Energy Systems, (Wallingford, Conn., www.protonenergy.com), sees distribution centers as his company's next target market for hydrogen consumption.

Proton's technology uses electrolysis to generate hydrogen from water. The company is looking at making its core hydrogen generation technology viable for lift truck fueling and backup power applications that use renewable sources of power such as solar and wind.

"The importance of the [distribution center] market is based on the ability for the end user to generate their own hydrogen on site and not be dependent on outside supply, with deliveries coming through their gate," Schiller says. "The desire to improve safety and security is driving this market to fuel cells on their lift trucks, as is the need to reduce battery changeouts and long charging times."

To serve this market, Schiller says Proton is looking at the ability to produce in excess of 100 kilograms of hydrogen per day. The ideal user would be a warehouse with 150 lift trucks or more. Such a fleet would use between 150-250 kilograms of hydrogen a day over 3 shifts. Each truck would require two refills per 24 hours of operation.

Proton is relying on the Cellexes and General Hydrogens to make the case for fuel cells in lift trucks. It is also working with end users to convince them that making hydrogen on site makes sense.

Tom Joseph, business development manager for hydrogen energy systems for Air Products & Chemicals (Allentown, Pa., www.airproducts.com), says his company's specialty for the past 50 years has been hydrogen delivery. More recently it has been developing dispensing technology to support hydrogen fueling stations used by fuel cell adopters.

"We see a breakeven point of 100 kg a day of consumption as a rule of thumb," he says. "That equates to 2535 vehicles. With a cluster of vehicles in a dedicated area we can easily justify building a hydrogen fueling station for that site."

Other entities are devoting resources to making that transition to a hydrogen infrastructure a safe one. The Edison Materials Technology Center in Dayton, Ohio, (www.emtec.org) has sponsored work on a hydrogen sensor. Because hydrogen is extremely flammable, even small concentrations must be detectable.

"Once the concentration of hydrogen goes above a certain point it is extremely explosive if ignited," says Frank Svet, president and CEO at Emtec. He reports that Makel Engineering (Chico, Calif., www.makelengineering.com) is commercializing hydrogen sensor technology that it codeveloped with Emtec. The sensor will reportedly be inexpensive enough to be mass produced for the automotive industry.

"That will put it well below the price point threshold for applications on pallet trucks. It will be located under the hood and sense any kind of hydrogen in the air and immediately cause a safety shutoff, cutting the hydrogen flow to the fuel cell," he says.

Cost Justification
It will take a little more time for fuel cell technology to reach the right price and evolutionary points for mass market applications. However the first step in driving the cost down have already been taken. Lift truck OEMs are partnering with various fuel cell suppliers. Some of these matches include Cellex Power and Crown (New Bremen, Ohio, www.crown.com), Hydrogenics (Mississauga, Ont., Canada, www.hydrogenics.com) and Hyster (www.hyster.com), and General Hydrogen with Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America (Houston, www.mcfa.com) and Raymond Corp. (Greene, N.Y., www.raymondcorp.com).

Ross Vanderlaan, product marketing manager for Mitsubishi Caterpillar is cautiously optimistic that these efforts will pay off.

"Fuel cells may provide an easier way to break up the shape of a conventional battery and allow us to develop more ergonomic and stylish electric trucks in the future," he says.

Before that happens, several challenges need to be overcome, he adds: hydrogen availability and affordability need to be improved; the cost of ownership equation for fuel cells (including initial investment) needs to work for smaller fleets, not just large ones, and the inherent technology limitations in high-volume grocery operations, such as cold storage.

OEMs are working on these challenges. And if the buzz generated at ProMat 2007 is any indication, it won't be another decade before more lift truck fleet managers will also be enjoying longer run times, stable voltage levels, quicker refueling and freedom from battery rooms.

TMI offers a high temperature, ceramic solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) that converts common fuels into electricity. In applications where there are fluctuating loads (i.e., lift trucks), the battery would accommodate the peaks while the fuel cell carries the continuous base load.

Fuel-cell components (fuel cell stack, high-pressure hydrogen tank, etc.) of Toyota's FCHV-F lift truck are mounted on a single module cartridge-type frame that can replace batteries in electric models.

A Cost Justification for Fuel Cells
Battelle, an research organization based in Columbus, Ohio, compared the costs of fuel cells versus batteries in pallet trucks and sit-down rider lift trucks. Researchers concluded that walkie pallet trucks provide an easier justification for conversion to fuel cells than riders. Even when incentives were factored into the sit down lift truck formula, battery power came out slightly ahead of fuel cells.
H-PEMFC vs. a Battery Powered Pallet Truck
3-battery pallet truck 2-battery pallet truck Fuel cell powered pallet truck Fuel cell pallet truck with $1,000/kW gov’t. incentive
NPV of Capital Costs $21,572 $17,654 $23,835 $21,004
NPV of O&M Costs (including fuel cell) $127,539 $127,539 $52,241 $52,241
NPV of total costs $149,111 $145,193 $76,075 $73,245
Lifecycle cost comparison of a H-PEMFC pallet truck to a batterypowered pallet truck with and without a $1,000 per kW incentive. The calculations use proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell systems.
Fuel-cell Powered vs. a Battery Powered Sit-down Lift Truck
3-battery sit-down truck 2-battery sit-down truck Fuel cell powered sit-down truck Fuel cell sit-down truck with $1,000/kW gov’t. incentive
NPV of Capital Costs $44.429 $39,497 $63,988 $56,440
NPV of O&M Costs (including fuel cell) $76,135 $76,135 $65,131 $65,131
NPV of total costs $120,563 $115,631 $129,118 $121,570
Lifecycle cost comparison of a proton exchange membrane fuel cell sit-down lift truck to a battery-powered model with and without a $1,000 per kW incentive from the government. The calculations use proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell systems.
Source: Batelle Memorial Institute
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