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Fuel cells: The science, study and promise of the newest player in materials handling

These alternative sources of energy on the lift truck scene may prove to be a viable alternative, after a little help.

This cross section illustrates a proton exchange membrane, one of several fuel cell configurations and the one best suited to the materials handling industry.

By Josh Bond, Senior Editor
April 14, 2011

Given volatile propane prices and the limitations of batteries, companies might feel as though they are forced to choose the lesser of two evils when powering their lift truck fleets. The emergence of fuel cell technology in the materials handling industry could offer a viable third option, but many questions remain unanswered. How reliable and durable is the hardware?

How safe are hydrogen fuel cells? What are the up-front and long-term costs? To what extent are fuel cells greener than conventional energy sources?

In recent years, fuel cell manufacturers and their customers have seen enough promise to begin a series of small-scale lift truck trials, many of which have turned into larger trials or full-scale installations. But even as pioneers work to answer some of the questions above, the long-term data many buyers prefer simply hasn’t yet been collected. Only time will tell how much of the lift truck market fuel cells will ultimately capture. Early indications suggest the technology could compete strongly in materials handling applications, offering reliable performance, a smaller carbon footprint as well as multifaceted savings.

Following the invention of fuel cells in 1838, they were referenced in the writings of Jules Verne, the father of science fiction. Laboratories spent the next century and a half working on the science, but viable commercial solutions remained a fiction. In a world where technological revolutions seem to come on a daily basis, impatient consumers and industry experts alike developed a dismissive attitude toward the technology.

“It’s always been a joke that fuel cell technology has been ‘the coming thing in the next few years’ for 30 years,” says Eric Jensen, director of research and development for new technologies at Crown Equipment.

Now that solutions have finally hit the market, Jensen suggests lift trucks could be the proving ground for more widespread adoption of the technology. “Materials handling is kind of hidden. It’s not in the consumer limelight. You see advances in fuel cell technology for the automotive industry, and it ends up on the front page. But I believe materials handling is leading the way with fuel cells for the automotive industry,” he says.

Fuel cells in the field
The space between lift trucks and freight trucks has already been bridged at sites like the new hydrogen fueling station at a Kimberly-Clark distribution center in Graniteville, S.C. Unveiled on Feb. 11 as the first of its kind, the station supports the entire lift truck fleet of the DC as well as county government vehicles and a Bridgestone/Firestone manufacturing facility across the street.

Bob Simon is director of process solutions for GENCO ATC, which partnered with Kimberly-Clark, Plug Power and Air Products to realize the hydrogen station project. The station was built with the help of $1.1 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars designed to accelerate the commercialization of hydrogen fuel cells. According to Simon, the application submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy suggested over-the-road freight trucks that travel routinely between the same destinations might benefit from hydrogen fueling stations at each stop.

In the meantime, the technology will likely be dependent on similar federal grants to build momentum in the market. “The outlook is promising, but there are still some obstacles, namely cost,” says Simon. “Without programs and incentives, it will be hard to overcome some of the reservations in the industry. Customers are willing to be leaders, but they don’t want to be pioneers.”

Frank Devlin, fuel cell segment manager for Raymond, agrees, noting that despite hydrogen’s reputation as catastrophically combustible, tens of thousands of fuel cell refuelings have occurred with no reported incidents. As fuel cells continue to prove themselves, energy prices might also work to encourage customers to give it a chance.
“Energy is on everyone’s minds these days, especially with the political unrest in the Middle East,” says Devlin. “People are asking what’s the best way to power anything, from your cell phone to your lift truck.”

About the Author

Josh Bond
Senior Editor

Josh Bond is Senior Editor for Modern, and was formerly Modern’s lift truck columnist and associate editor. He has a degree in Journalism from Keene State College and has studied business management at Franklin Pierce University.

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