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Fuel Cells Provide End-User Benefits

Hydrogen fuel cells are a good choice for large forklift fleets

Hydrogen fuel cells have typically been seen as a fringe technology, but in the last several years, fuel cell technology has advanced to a commercial state. Many end-users are using fuel-cell-powered forklifts now, with great success. Of course, hydrogen fuel cells are not for each and every application. Our intention is not to go out and replace every lead-acid battery out there. The key with fuel cells is to focus on specific high-volume and high-throughput operations. One benefit of hydrogen fuel cells is a constant power output. As long as the fuel cell has fuel in it, it will run at full speed, whereas a lead-acid battery has performance limitations as it discharges. In some applications, a fuel cell can last one and a half to two times longer than a fully charged battery, which may not be performing at full strength the whole time. In a high-throughput environment, the productivity difference can be substantial.

Hydrogen fuel cells can be ideal for customers with high-throughput applications.

Operator productivity also increases when using fuel cells. If you have hundreds of lift trucks all working at the same time, the batteries are depleting at the same rate and need to be changed at the same time, causing a traffic jam in the changing area. Hydrogen fuel cells offer “opportunity fueling,” whereby an operator can pass by a fuel dispenser, see no wait time, stop, top off the truck and be back on the floor in a matter of minutes. Instead of taking 10 to 20 minutes to change a battery, it takes, at the most, five minutes to refuel a fuel cell. So downtime is limited; the operators remain engaged and on the floor. Ultimately, that means savings for the end-user.

A concern many prospective end-users have is the upfront investment in necessary hydrogen infrastructure. However, this should not be a concern. The hydrogen providers typically lease the gas to the user. It is stored out back in a tank behind the building and gets piped in. No hydrogen is kept inside, so there is limited safety concern. A dispenser can be placed inside the building, at which operators pull up for three to five minutes to refuel. The need to take up prime facility floor space with a battery room is eliminated, and the cost is rolled into a monthly service charge or lease payment. Costs will decrease as more hydrogen is used, so, again, it’s beneficial to multiple-shift, high-throughput applications.

There is a service component to a fuel cell. The stack, for example, currently has a life expectancy of about 10,000 to 12,000 operating hours before it will need to be replaced. There are also compressors and other componentry within the fuel cell unit that may require service. In addition, much like a battery-powered truck, there is also maintenance required—replacing air filters, for instance. So, yes, there’s service associated with fuel cells, but there is quite a bit of service involved with a lead-acid battery as well—the washing, disposal, acid spill cleanup and more.

For an opposing viewpoint on hydrogen fuel cell-powered lift trucks, click here.

Finally, while it is true that fuel cell companies have benefited from tax incentives, those are not in place to subsidize the industry. They are there to speed the adoption curve. It’s not a subsidy that fuel cell manufacturers count on forever—we utilize those funds to get beyond the early adopters and speed the adoption rate to a mass market.

Within the next two to three years, other applications will surface where fuel cells make sense, and this field will take off even further. It’s best to be ahead of the curve than behind it.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Associtation
Meet the AuthorWarren Brower is product marketing manager for GenDrive products at Plug Power Inc., located in Latham, New York, and on the Web at www.plugpower.com.

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