In an article titled “Green For Green” that appeared in the July 2007 issue of The MHEDA Journal, we told the story of how one distributor is attempting to take advantage of fuel cell technology for lift trucks. LiftOne, a division of Carolina Tractor (Charlotte, NC), is testing fuel cells at six customer locations throughout South Carolina.
LiftOne provided end-users with Linde 5,000-pound electric rider forklifts equipped with hydraulic attachments and a fuel cell produced by Hydrogenics Corporation. The testing is part of a cooperative effort between Hydrogenics, Linde, LiftOne, the South Carolina Research Association and an agency called Engenuity, who provided the funding.
The first test was performed at a Michelin facility in Greenville, South Carolina. After conducting some tests to get a performance and cost baseline for the company’s current fleet, LiftOne trucked in hydrogen to be used in the fuel cells and trained a select number of operators on the fuel cell trucks, including information about features and refueling procedures. The trucks were put in use around the clock for 12 straight days. “The operators ran them pretty hard, and we accumulated a lot of data,” LiftOne Vice President/General Manager Bill Ryan says.
Areas of concentration include truck performance, shift length, refueling time and maintenance. Although the hard data is not yet ready to be released, Ryan says that the early findings are “promising.” He reports that preliminary run times were longer than with traditional batteries and the time needed to refuel was less than is required to change a battery. “Projecting that forward, utilizing one fuel cell versus multiple batteries opens up floor space previously used for battery storage and charging,” Ryan says. “We demonstrated that the technology works and has a practical application.”
There was even at least one unexpected result. “You don’t think of electric lift trucks as being hot, but operators say they used to feel the battery heat, particularly at the end of a shift,” Ryan says. “An advantage of fuel cells is that they don’t generate heat, something that, in this age of driver comfort, some people paid attention to. We didn’t anticipate that.”
The Michelin testing ended in early August and testing moved to Leigh Fibers in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Each subsequent test site will perform a two-week trial, with testing scheduled to wrap up in December. Two of the upcoming test sites currently use LP trucks, and Ryan is excited to see the comparison with fuel cells. “We think a side-by-side comparison of a fossil fuel truck with a fuel cell should really be interesting,” Ryan says. “It’s a different equation than a battery. It’s not so much about space savings as how long it will run.”
The next step is to determine cost feasibility. “With the current state of the technology, fuel cell trucks are not in production on a grand scale. This test is going to help us find a point where the breakeven cost may be more realistic than it is today,” Ryan explains. However, he is quick to note that tax incentives play a big role in the economic profile of fuel cell development for lift trucks. “Surely, those will affect the cost profile from state to state as time goes on.”