Feeling Nostalgic About Fuel Cells

April 1, 2004
Would you buy into a technology that’s so old it’s new?

Fuel cells will be powering lift trucks in less than two years. ... The more conservative predict military use of fuel cells in about three years and industrial use in five. Any way you look at it, the last lap is being run.

If so, this race must be running on a pretty big track. I excerpted this prediction from the July 1960 edition of Material Handling Engineering. Forty-four years later, this magazine is Material Handling Management and fuel cells are still just a few years away. How few? According to Geoffrey Ballard, chair of General Hydrogen Corporation and chairman emeritus of the Canadian Hydrogen Association, they’ll be brought out of development and design by next year. Then we’ll have a year-and-a-half of commercial testing before fuel-cell-powered vehicles hit the open market.

The National Academy of Sciences disagrees. They say it’ll be more like 50 years before the U.S. switches from gas to hydrogen.

Ballard concedes we’ll have to expand the use of hydrogen before expanding the use of fuel cells. And Ford Motor Company is doing its part. It is looking at building a demonstration fleet of cars that use hydrogen in internal combustion engines.

Let’s forget about cars for the moment. As we said last year in this space, material handling will be the proving grounds for fuel cells before the automotive world adopts the technology. The biggest roadblock to widespread automotive applications will be price. Automotive still has a pretty good thing going with internal combustion engines. In fact, Ballard says the IC engine is getting better every year with respect to pollution.

"Its price breakpoint is about $50 per kilowatt with a 5,000-hour duration, or one U.S. cent per kilowatt hour for the engine itself," Ballard told me. "That’s the whole drivetrain. That means, ignoring the drivetrain, the fuel cell price point has got to be 0.6 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s a very difficult target to meet."

It will only be met after the fuel cell is accepted and fully understood in a number of applications that are profitable years before the automotive market. Cars will be the last to be equipped with fuel cells, not the first.

Why will lift trucks be the first? Because the fuel distribution infrastructure already exists. Major retailers with DCs and thousands of retail outlets use lift trucks at each of these locations. Each DC, through existing trucking arrangements, could deliver hydrogen to the retail outlets to power the three or four lift trucks used at each of those locations. Hydrogen could also be used by the uninterruptible power system (UPS) in each retail outlet. The retail supply chain can create a pathway for hydrogen to reach the shopping mall, which will become a point of delivery for hydrogen. A few more years after that, a hydrogen fueling island could be located right next to a gasoline island for the industrial truck’s automotive brethren.

There’s that phrase again: a few more years. Fuel cells were in the talking stages a couple hundred years ago. Sir Humphrey Davy first mentioned fuel cells in 1801. He devised one using carbon and nitric acid. Then in 1900, the first high-temperature cell was tried. Francis T. Bacon of England then invented the Hydrox cell, which produced current densities up to 1,000 amperes per square foot. This system needed large, bulky controls, but it was able to run a lift truck.

It’s 2004 and the debate continues. Some scientists argue that hydrogen used in IC-powered vehicles is the way to go and could be in use faster than fuel cells. But burning hydrogen in an internal combustion engine is less efficient at producing power.

"Turbines and engines produce heat and friction along with power," MHE wrote in 1960. "Fuel cells, on the other hand, control the heat, and wind up with more useful energy."

Fuel cells have been cool for decades. Don’t you think it’s time for the industrial truck industry to go back to the future?

Tom Andel, chief editor, [email protected]

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