Fuel Cells In Your Future

June 1, 2003
Their practical application isn't as far off as you thought.

Dan Rather is the last person I’d expect to be talking lift trucks, but there he was on 60 Minutes II, making them part of my prime time viewing pleasure. There’s no escaping material handling!

That’s not a complaint, it’s a promise. Actually, Dan’s report is evidence that the industrial truck industry is on the cutting edge of a technology that might help cure the U.S. of its endless thirst for foreign oil. I’m talking about fuel cells.

The big lift truck OEMs have been keeping it quiet, however, I’ve learned that several of them have plans to incorporate fuel cells into their product lines — and soon. If you ask them, they might say that’s ten years down the road. Maybe for the Big Three auto makers, but some experts are saying that by 2007, batteries will start going the way of the buggy whip and that by 2010 lift trucks will be powered by fuel cells and completely redesigned.

Dan’s report focused on the automotive industry and GM’s “Billion-Dollar Bet” that we’ll eventually be driving pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen gas. But the managers of some of today’s biggest lift truck fleets are harnessing that power today, in partnership with companies positioning themselves to be major players in the game GM is betting on.

“We developed a battery replacement pack that will run a lift truck for 24 hours,” says Michael Routtenberg, president and CEO, General Hydrogen. “There will be no power diminishment, and it will take one minute to refuel. In a typical warehouse or DC where these lift trucks are used an average of 14 percent to 40 percent in terms of pedal time, operators will refuel them once every three days, so you’ll see a tremendous productivity gain.”

Cost? If you have 100 lift trucks in your fleet you might be looking at $1.5 to $2 million in net retrofit costs -- then a savings of $500,000 a year by eliminating maintenance costs, Routtenberg esimates. His competitors — and their population is growing — agree. Blair Lill, with Cellex Power Products, told me the more companies there are developing fuel cells in every market space, the better for everybody.

“That will bring the cost points down, and the solutions will become more attractive,” he says. “Right now the highest value is for high-throughput, multi-shift operations.”

The industrial truck marketplace is where price points and bugs will be dealt with. Today’s trial runs will lead to tried-and-true technology by 2010. And the industrial truck and automotive industries won’t be the only beneficiaries. PricewaterhouseCoopers projects global demand to reach $46 billion by 2011 and $2.6 trillion by 2021.

But first, the bugs. These include training personnel, developing codes and standards for the technology’s safe and effective implementation, and establishing a fueling infrastructure. For any plant or DC that means storing a fuel source somewhere on site. Fuel cells convert the chemical energy of fuels — commonly hydrogen — into efficient, environmentally friendly power. Some call them engines in a box.

If you think this technology is developing very quickly, you’re right. The U.S., Canada, Europe and Japan are competing to see which of them can fund a successful fuel cell industry the fastest. The U.S. will spend $2.7 billion on R&D in the next five years. There’s even stiff competition among the states. Ohio recently granted $18 million to Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University to support R&D and commercialization.

MHM will follow these developments for you. In fact when we announce the winners of our Material Handling Innovation Awards this fall, don’t be surprised if a fuel cell pioneer is among them. In the meantime, you can read more about the blossoming of this industry on our web site: www.totalsupplychain.com. Look for the news story, “Fuel Cell Makers On Board With Lift Trucks.”

Tom Andel, chief editor [email protected]

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