Wal-Mart . General Motors. FedEx. Bridgestone. Michelin. These are just a few of the giants that have used fuel-cell-powered vehicles to move materials. In material handling applications, fuel-cell technology is beyond infancy and well on its way to walking. Now, instead of wondering if fuel cells will work, manufacturers and distributors are considering how they will work. They are turning their attention to ROI.
A fuel cell uses fuel and oxygen to create electricity. Hydrogen, commonly used to power fuel cells, can be produced from natural gas and coal as well as solar, wind and nuclear energy. While there are dozens of types of fuel cells, hydrogen proton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cells are being used in most current projects.
Often touted as ‘green’ vehicles, fuel-cell-powered lift trucks, like their electric counterparts, have no harmful emissions. Water and heat are the only byproducts of a fuel cell.
Though both electric lift trucks and fuel-cell-powered vehicles are environmentally friendly, those powered by fuel cells go a step further. Fuel cells eliminate the need for lead-acid batteries and the downtime and costs associated with storing, maintaining and changing them. They also remove the environmental challenges associated with disposing of leadacid batteries.
Fuel cells work like batteries, producing electricity through a chemical reaction instead of through combustion. Unlike batteries, however, fuel cells continue to produce electricity as long as fuel is available. Lead-acid batteries lose approximately 14% of their productivity due to “battery droop,” according to Ballard Power Systems, a fuel-cell stack manufacturer. In a lift truck, battery droop results in sluggish operation, lower productivity, more wear and tear on the motor and a more physically demanding job for lift truck operators.
Experts say fuel cells also last longer on a single fueling then batteries do on a charge. “A battery will last for a four- to six-hour shift,” says Paul Cass, director of material handling and bus markets at Ballard. “Then, it needs to be recharged and swapped out. Runtimes for fuel cells are three times longer than for lead-acid batteries.”
And, while it takes from 10 to 50 minutes to swap out a battery, field tests have shown it only takes two to eight minutes to refuel a fuel cell.
Tires and Fuel Cells
Bridgestone/Firestone North American Tire (BFNAT) is one of the latest to join the ranks of large companies switching to hydrogen fuel-cell-powered lift trucks. On Mar. 31, the tiremaker announced that its Aiken County, S.C., tire plant would convert 23 lift trucks it leases from Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America Inc. from electric to fuelcell power. The tiremaker will convert the rest of its fleet in 2009.
Mike Rose, plant manager, says the decision to convert the fleet to fuel-cell power seemed natural. The company had previously operated fuel-cell-powered automatic guided vehicles at its Warren County, Tenn., plant.
Last year, the Aiken County plant tested the waters by operating a few fuel-cell-powered prototype units for a couple of months, says Rose. Lift trucks used GenDrive fuel-cell power units from Plug Power. Plug Power says its GenDrive systems are drop-in replacements for lead-acid batteries.
“We then looked at the cost of the batteries and maintenance costs involved with maintaining an electric fleet and compared that to the cost of hydrogen,” Rose says. “We realized it’s a little bit of a risk, but there are also a tremendous amount of gains.”
Those gains included reduced maintenance costs and improved productivity. “We run our lift trucks seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” says Rose. “Batteries are only good for about eight hours. Then, the operator has to take 20 minutes to change it out. So, we were losing about an hour a day on each truck just by changing the battery.”
Rose also notes that operators were able to take advantage of opportunity fueling, as the lift trucks can be fueled anytime, whereas batteries need to be charged at specific times. “Refueling only takes about five minutes and is done twice a day at the most,” says Rose.
The tire plant manager has also been pleased with the ability of the trucks to maintain consistent power. “Once you start to use a battery, the power starts to decline over time,” explains Rose. “The fuel cells allow the trucks to maintain full power until they run out of fuel. We don’t experience that drop off in amperage.”
That’s where reduced maintenance enters the picture. “We believe we will get better maintenance life because that drop in amperage can damage the electronics in the lift trucks,” Rose says.
Rose adds that he was able to gain floor space by no longer having to store batteries and chargers. “For every lift truck, we had to maintain storage locations for two batteries and a charger. I’ve gained all of that space back,” he says. Safety has also improved, he notes, as employees no longer have to lift and replace heavy batteries.
Despite the benefits, barriers to widespread acceptance of fuel cells remain. The high capital cost is the biggest hurdle.
“The technology is more expensive than a lead-acid battery,” says Warren Brower, product marketing manager at Plug Power. Brower feels, however, that the potential benefits can outweigh that initial cost. “When you consider that high-volume manufacturers have to purchase batteries, plus charging equipment, plus keep a room to store and charge the batteries, plus appoint individuals responsible for maintaining and changing batteries, the technology becomes a benefit rather than a hindrance.”
Another obstacle is the need to create an in-plant hydrogen infrastructure. Manufacturing facilities and distribution centers that want to switch their fleets to fuel cells must ensure a steady supply of fuel.
End users can either purchase delivered hydrogen from a local supplier or produce hydrogen themselves, a concept called “onsite generation.” Air Products offers electrolyzer technology as well as natural gas or hydrocarbon reformers that can be used to produce hydrogen on site. Nuvera Fuel Cells also offers hydrogen generation systems.
“Reformers [for onsite generation] may have more upfront investment but lower operating costs,” says Tim Quellhorst, vice president, engineering, at Crown Equipment Corp. “Having the hydrogen trucked in may have a lower initial cost but higher operating costs.”
Then, dispensing must be considered. “Warehouses and distribution centers can install their own hydrogen fueling station in house,” says Jennifer Gangi, program director at Fuel Cells 2000, a nonprofit outreach organization that promotes fuel cells and hydrogen. “Another option is to use mobile fuel trucks at a location, which ensures the mobility of gasoline and diesel vehicles and eliminates the need for central charging stations,” says Gangi.
“Hydrogen can be delivered by trucking liquid hydrogen from a manufacturer or by generating it on site,” says Steve Medwin, manager of advanced research at Raymond Corp. “Either method requires equipment to compress the liquid or gas to the pressures needed on the truck as well as a dispenser to rapidly fill the onboard tank.”
Lift truck operators at the BFNAT plant fuel up using delivered hydrogen in portable tanks on trailers. “We worked with Plug Power to connect with hydrogen suppliers to get the temporary system,” says Rose. “We also talked with the hydrogen suppliers used by the Warren County plant.”
“Fuel cells themselves make great economic sense,” says Rose. “When we started looking at the infrastructure to support that, we had to look really hard.” Fortunately, the Aiken County area strongly supports hydrogen research, and state and local economic development agencies are planning on establishing a hydrogen corridor. That’s where Rose will eventually get his hydrogen supply. “The central fueling station will be subsidized, so our costs will go down,” says Rose.
That kind of government support has been crucial to the success of recent field tests. “Early fuel-cell trials were based on government support to help pay for the infrastructure,” says Medwin.
Raymond has been testing fuel-cell-powered lift trucks in its Greene facility since January 2007. The New York Energy Research and Development Authority awarded the lift truck manufacturer $750,000 for the two-year research trial as a way to promote the use of energy-efficient technologies.
An indoor refueling system from Nuvera Fuel Cells was installed inside the plant, while hydrogen is stored outside in a tube trailer.
Oorja Protonics, a fuel-cell manufacturer, says it offers a solution that can eliminate some of the commercial barriers facing hydrogen fuel cells. The company claims its fuel cell, which uses methanol instead of hydrogen, “is a much better alternative to hydrogen fuel cells due to its low cost, ready availability and greatly reduced volatility.”
The OorjaPac, the company’s onboard battery charger, is a hybrid system that pairs a methanol fuel cell with a battery. “The OorjaPac keeps the battery charged at all times,” says Sanjiv Malhotra, chief executive officer and founder of Oorja Protonics. “There is no need to connect to the grid or to do battery swapping.”
Another challenge hampering widespread adoption of fuel cells faces lift truck manufacturers and fuel-cell designers. “We are learning that putting a fuel cell into a lift truck is more complicated than just swapping out a battery,” says Medwin.
In electric lift trucks, “energy goes back into the battery, which acts as a reservoir,” Medwin explains. “Fuel cells are different. They are either hybrids containing a small battery or they have supercapacitors—devices that can absorb power.
“Based on what we have learned, it is not just a matter of putting the fuel cell in the truck and seeing if it runs,” says Medwin. “It also has to be consistent with how the truck is designed.”
Crown was awarded nearly $1 million from the state of Ohio to research these design challenges. The grant was provided by the Ohio Department of Development and Ohio’s Third Frontier Commission, a state agency that provides grants to support the growth of the state’s fuel-cell industry.
“There are several considerations to evaluate before a wide range of lift trucks are offered with a fuel cell as the power source,” says Crown President Jim Dicke III. “In the current design, the battery provides a counterweight to the load. Fuel cells are much lighter. We need to explore solutions and make sure all systems are compatible to ensure the critical performance characteristics of a lift truck.”
“Most of the fuel cells provided today are power packs,” adds Crown’s Quellhorst. “They won’t fit in the same space a lead-acid battery used to fit. None of them are truly direct replacements for batteries.”
Quellhorst says fuel-cell power packs must be compatible with a lift truck’s electrical system and also meet minimum weight requirements. “Lift truck manufacturers and fuel-cell providers need to work together to make sure the vehicle will meet national standards when the fuel-cell product is put in place of a lead-acid battery,” he says.
The focus of the Crown research, according to Quellhorst, will be to identify the vehicle changes required for each of Crown’s lift truck models to accommodate fuel-cell power packs supplied by Plug Power, Hydrogenics, Nuvera and Oorja Protonics, among others.
So, what kind of return can a company expect after switching to a fuel-cell-powered fleet? While there is no single answer, there are some industry estimates.
“The predicted payback period is three to four years for both the fuel-cell-based lift truck and the hydrogen infrastructure,” writes Battelle researcher Kathya Mahadevan in a fuel-cell study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy.
“Savings are comprised of the avoidance of several costs,” continues Mahadevan, “the hard costs associated with battery changing, the extra maintenance costs associated with maintaining batteries, reduced productivity caused by drivers having to stop and drive over to a battery-changing station and the voltage drop that comes during the last half-hour of battery life.”
BFNAT’s Rose says his plant is currently at a breakeven point. “We’re not looking at an economic benefit; however, we’re not seeing an economic penalty, either,” he says. “Some benefits, like the floor space we gained and the enhanced safety, are hard to quantify,” he emphasizes.
For now, fuel cells appear to be paying off in large, high-throughput, multi-shift material handling operations.
In January 2007, Hydrogenics Corp. and LiftOne, a division of Carolina Tractor, received funding from the Greater Columbia Fuel Cell Challenge to deploy hydrogen fuel-cell-powered lift trucks in six manufacturing facilities in South Carolina. The Greater Columbia Fuel Cell Challenge—a collaborative effort among the City of Columbia, S.C.; the University of South Carolina; EngenuitySC; and the South Carolina Research Authority—supports the deployment of fuel-cell and alternative energies through privatesector grants.
LiftOne installed Hydrogenics HyPX fuel-cell power packs in lift trucks from Linde Material Handling. Michelin, Leigh Fibers, Amcor, Mars, PBR and Isola tested the Class 1 lift trucks in their manufacturing plants. Air Products supplied the mobile hydrogen fueling technology for all six sites. Some of the facilities housed large, multi-shift operations, while others contained much smaller operations.
LiftOne discovered that the ideal customer for fuelcell- powered lift trucks is a distribution center that operates three shifts, six or seven days a week. “Justifying fuel cells for a 40-truck fleet that runs 24/7 is close to a breakeven proposition,” says Bill Ryan, vice president and general manager of LiftOne. “For smaller facilities, running single- or two-shift operations, the technology was tougher to justify.”
Medwin and Cass agree. “Sites with high labor rates and multiple shifts per day are good initial targets for fuel-cell technology,” says Medwin. Cass adds: “In a highusage operation, return can be seen in less than one and a half years.”
Despite the barriers, experts are confident about the future of fuel-cell power. “We see material handling as a very significant, near-term market for fuel cells,” says Cass.
“We’ve gone beyond the pilot stage,” concludes Brower. “Fuel-cell products will quickly become a reality.”
| Sourcebox For more information about fuel cells used to power industrial vehicles, contact the following sources:
Air Products, Lehigh Valley, Pa., www.airproducts.com
Ballard Power Systems, Burnaby, British Columbia, www.ballard.com
Crown Equipment Corp., New Bremen, Ohio, www.crown.com
Fuel Cells 2000, Washington, www.fuelcells.org
Greater Columbia Fuel Cell Challenge, Columbia, S.C., www.fuelcellchallenge.com
Hydrogenics Corp., Mississauga, Ontario, www.hydrogenics.com
LiftOne, Charlotte, N.C., www.carolinacat.com
Linde Material Handling, Summerville, S.C., www.lindelifttruck.com
Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America Inc., Houston, www.mcfa.com
Nuvera Fuel Cells, Billerica, Mass., www.nuvera.com
Oorja Protonics, Fremont, Calif., www.oorjaprotonics.com
Plug Power Inc., Latham, N.Y., www.plugpower.com
Raymond Corp., Greene, N.Y., www.raymondcorp.com