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Will Hydrogen Ever Be A Dominant Force?

According to a study done by Fuel Cells 2000 entitled State of the States: Fuel Cells In America, the United States is the world leader in fuel cell forklift deployments, with more than 1,500 forklifts deployed or ordered in 2010. The U.S. holds 47 percent of fuel cell patents registered between 2002 and 2010. For more than 15 years, hydrogen has been forecasted to become a dominant player in the forklift industry. Why haven’t hydrogen forklifts attained this goal? And will it ever come to pass?

 The Advantages of Fuel Cells

There are many advantages that come with using hydrogen forklifts. They are environmentally friendly and have very low to zero emissions. “Aside from environmental advantages, hydrogen fuel cells provide an ergonomic advantage. With the fuel cells, employees no longer have to change batteries on the trucks. That frees up warehouse space for storing the batteries but also reduces accidents and back injuries,” says Bill Ryan, vice president and general manager of LiftOne (Charlotte, NC). “We have also had operators tell us that when operating a fuel cell forklift, they didn’t feel heat coming through the seat like they do on a battery-powered truck.”

Refueling a fuel cell is a much quicker process than recharging electric forklifts. “With electrics, operators have to worry about where and when to recharge. Do you have to run the truck all the way down and then charge it all the way up? With fuel cells you don’t have to worry about that. You can refuel at 9 a.m., then again at noon and then again at 2 p.m. and it doesn’t slow anything down. The charging time is taken out of the equation and that’s a productivity gain for employees,” says Ryan.

Challenges Facing Fuel Cells

Fuel cells are not without their challenges, however. The technology is very expensive and without government subsidies can be cost-prohibitive for end-users. One of the biggest challenges is the issue of availability. While hydrogen is one of Earth’s most abundant resources, harnessing and distributing it is still difficult. “For implementing fuel cell forklifts to be cost-effective, customers would have to have a huge fleet,” says Ryan. “They would need something like 50 forklifts running three shifts per day, seven days per week. A fleet that big can offset the considerable cost associated with trucking fuel in or converting the hydrogen from a gas to a liquid.”

Mark Milovich, president of Lift Atlanta (Decatur, GA) agrees. “The main issue with fuel cells is hydrogen fuel infrastructure. It’s very expensive to get hydrogen into a plant to fuel up the trucks.” Milovich says hydrogen is also a very volatile gas. “Employees have to be specially trained to deal with hydrogen because any kind of static electricity can cause a spark.”

Hydrogen In The Future

Will hydrogen ever be the market force it was predicted to be? “If fuel cells were to attain a dominant market share, it would be because of the automotive industry. If the automotive industry can figure out a way to make hydrogen fuel available in a cost-justified manner, then the forklift industry could benefit,” says Ryan. “But if there isn’t a big vehicle population that subscribes to hydrogen, then the opportunity for forklifts to continue using hydrogen will be limited.” Milovich agrees. “The fuel cell is a great idea, but it’s at least another six to ten years away before it becomes a real viable option.”

What do you think? Will hydrogen fuel cells ever be more than a fringe player in the forklift market? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

Read more about the advantages and disadvantages of hydrogen fuel cells here.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association

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