Distributor deploys fuel cell technology.
Although fuel cells have been around for over 100 years, only recently have they become a viable energy source for lift trucks. Fuel cells were first demonstrated by Sir William Grove, a Welsh scientist, who called his invention a “gas voltaic battery.” The name “fuel cell” was coined in 1889, but the technology remained very much a laboratory curiosity until NASA began using it on the Apollo missions.
The last ten years have sparked renewed interest in the device, thanks to expanding interest in the promise of clean and efficient power generation. One industry expert says that industrial applications for fuel cells gained more credence when the automotive industry got serious about them within the last five years.
One company that is taking full advantage of the renewed interest in fuel cells is LiftOne, a division of Carolina Tractor (Charlotte, NC). Since August 2006, LiftOne has been involved with an initiative to spur the spread of fuel cell technology among its customers. “Last summer, we were reading about fuel cells and their capabilities, and we talked internally about what the applications might be with lift trucks,” says Lift-One General Manager Bill Ryan, who then contacted Hydrogenics Corporation, a Canadian manufacturer of fuel cells. “We believe there are some real opportunities to promote clean air and also provide some long-term cost savings for customers who use batteries,” Ryan says. “And we hear about some environmental concerns from end-users who use lead-acid batteries.”
Following the initial conversations, LiftOne and Hydrogenics were contacted by Russ Keller, business manager of the South Carolina Research Association (SCRA). Along with other entities, the SCRA for several years has spearheaded The Columbia Fuel Cell Challenge, an initiative to further the deployment of fuel cells in South Carolina through their use in such vehicles as buses, lawn maintenance equipment, Segway transporters and now lift trucks.
SCRA had been in talks with Hydrogenics, which mentioned Ryan and LiftOne’s interest in the technology. Keller told Ryan that part of SCRA’s project was to focus on lift trucks and material handling equipment. “He told us they were looking for target audiences to pique some interest and gain visibility for the use of fuel cells. When we heard that, we got busy contacting customers who might have an interest,” Ryan recalls. “The opportunity was attractive to them and to many of our forward-thinking customers, trying to save money and do the right thing. Many of them could use fuel cells today.”
In January 2007, South Carolina issued a grant to LiftOne and Hydrogenics to deploy fuel cells throughout the state. Troy Garrison, sales manager of LiftOne’s Engineered Solutions group, and Product Specialist Tom Dever located six customers who agreed to participate in the project. “We looked for people who were operating multiple shifts with multiple batteries, battery rooms, triple stackers,” Garrison explains. “They’re running a lot of hours so they’re consuming a lot of energy costs in kilowatts out of the wall.” Another consideration was the capability of each participant to have sophisticated cost reports that can be used to compare traditional batteries versus the fuel cell results. LiftOne stepped in to help there as well.
The program, which they are calling “Green for Green—good business for a good earth,” began in June with a two-week test at the first of the six locations. Trials are expected to continue until December, at which time the results will be compiled and analyzed and it will be determined in which applications fuel cells might thrive.
The fuel cells are shipped from Hydrogenics directly to LiftOne, who then replaces the traditional batteries in either the customers’ trucks or in a pair of Linde lift trucks with the fuel cells. “We are putting these units in the field and we are working with these good customers to derive realistic results,” Ryan says. “We want to prove that the technology works and then discover its real-world practicality for these particular applications.”
Early findings have shown that fuel cells, in some applications, can operate twice as long as conventional batteries. The refueling time on a fuel cell is four to six minutes, compared to 20 to 30 minutes or more to change out a battery. Fuel cells have uniform voltage dispersal throughout their duty cycle. “There are a lot of potential pluses to fuel cells,” Ryan says. “A three-gallon tank will run for 14 hours, the consistent and constant voltage prevents the extra wear and tear on motors and pumps, the only byproducts are water and air, and customers can regain all of that lost floor space used to store batteries. Those savings begin to add up quickly.”
Of course, there is still the issue of availability. Hydrogen is one of Earth’s most abundant resources, but harnessing and distributing it is another story. “The cost of hydrogen itself, we are told, is relatively inexpensive, but the biggest challenge to embracing this technology is the infrastructure required to deliver the fuel to the field,” Ryan says. Several methods are in use to try to get hydrogen fuel to different locations. In the LiftOne trial, hydrogen is being shipped in to each specific location by truck. Another method uses an electrolysis machine to break down water into hydrogen. Other companies are experimenting with compressed hydrogen lines coming directly into their facilities.
Time will tell which method proves to be most effective, but Ryan and LiftOne are excited to be involved in what may be the wave of the future. “We’re trying to hold ourselves back from running too fast. We were only crawling two months ago and now we feel we are standing upright and walking, but we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves,” he says. “We don’t know that fuel cells are for everyone just yet, but we do believe the technology can work in the forklift business. What remains to be seen is the appetite we all will have for it and the cost. This is probably the single most exciting thing that I’ve been involved with in my 24 years in the forklift business. And as is the case with everything that’s worthwhile, there are some obstacles and hurdles to overcome, but we look at those as opportunities. We are being extremely open with our customers and our vendors asking for their help to determine if this is a good solution for all of us.”