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Light Lifting: The Search for a Higher Power

Jan. 1, 2007
Hydrogen fuel cells are moving from prototypes to real-world applications, and material handling is at the heart of the action.

As technological and engineering breakthroughs go, very few new developments embody as much hope to as many people as hydrogen-powered fuel cells. The ultimate promise as this technology creeps closer and closer to economic viability is freedom from oil's environmental, economic and political pitfalls. It's a grand dream that's decades and billions of dollars away at the earliest. Today, the material handling industry is at the crux of that dream.

In this issue we look at the state of hydrogen fuel-cell technology, and fuel-cell technology in general, as it's being developed for lift truck applications. (See "Hydrogen Power: From Fantasy to Reality," Page 16.) As reported by Tom Andel, the approach that's currently being piloted couples a hydrogen-powered fuel cell with a lead-acid or nickel metal hydride battery, or with ultra-capacitors (high density energy storage devices). This hybrid technology promises to deliver the required power bursts and runtime necessary to lift heavy loads over an eight-hour shift.

Lift trucks and other material handling vehicles offer a good test case for fuel cells. First, there's the closed-loop nature of the work environment, which easily accommodates a central fueling station. The need for counterbalance eliminates any concern about weight. It's also easy to measure productivity gains from not having to recharge or switch batteries at facilities that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The ROI challenge at the moment is the high price of the fuel cell stack materials— we're talking about expensive stuff like platinum—a relatively short operating life, and limited functionality in cold-storage environments.

Those familiar the technical details expect that these challenges will be solved sooner, within a few years, rather than later. After that, some monumental cultural, economic and government hurdles will have to be overcome before hybrid technology can move into more mainstream vehicles. Hydrogen isn't really a fuel source. It's a way of storing and transporting energy. It must be extracted from fossil fuels, releasing carbon dioxide in the process, or from water by using electricity. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that 77% of the country's electricity comes from burning natural gas, coal or petroleum. Such greenhouse-gas generating power sources would negate much of the environmental benefit from filling the nation's highways with trucks and cars powered by hydrogen.

Beyond production, there are the challenges of storing and distributing liquid or compressed hydrogen on a mass scale at enough locations to make everyday vehicles practical. Transporting hydrogen by truck or rail, because of the energy required, is inefficient. This leaves pipelines and on-site generation, which again requires electricity, natural gas, or some other fossil fuel.

Despite these challenges and many others, it's exciting to see so many talented people with a change-the-world mentality focused on our industry. The technology that wins in the warehouse and factory will probably win in the broader multi-billion automotive market as well. Those dreams of oil independence can't come true soon enough.

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