Lift Truck Tips: Hydrogen fuel cells on the rise

Manufacturer predicts strong future for the newest lift truck power supply.

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As hydrogen fuel cell technology continues to gain attention and market share in lift truck applications, the emerging contender in materials handling may have hit the tipping point, according to experts at Ballard Power Systems. After partnering with Plug Power to develop the GenDrive fuel cell system, Ballard has helped put more than 1,200 fuel cell units into service. According to Gary Schubak, marketing manager for materials handling at Ballard, those units have logged more than 2.5 million hours in North American lift truck applications.

“We’re starting to get some market traction, but it’s still a relatively new concept,” says Schubak. “We’re just nibbling at the heels of the total lift truck market, but we’re to the place where customers use it, like it, and want more of it.”

Ballard began fuel cell trials in 2006, but only in the last 24 months has the technology taken off, says Schubak. Hydrogen fuel cells are still primarily suited for a specific section of the market, says Schubak. He adds that high-throughput, multi-shift fleets of more than 30 trucks will stand to benefit the most from deploying a hydrogen infrastructure.

“For those customers, it might be a less expensive and cleaner way to move,” he says. By replacing battery and fuel tank swap-outs with high-speed, on-demand refueling, the technology can help increase uptime and productivity by streamlining some of the labor-intensive needs of other power sources, says Schubak.

But even as educated users come to fuel cell providers with an understanding of the technology’s viability, some misconceptions remain, he says.

“The big myth is that the only way to get an environmentally sustainable solution is to spend premium money,” he says. “The truth is that we can show economic benefit in addition to less environmental impact. You can have it both ways.”

In addition, the initial outlay for fuel cell conversion at a facility could have additional benefits down the road. Commercial fuel cell solutions exist now for most major lift truck classifications, but Schubak says the diesel engine is also in the crosshairs of fuel cell manufacturers.

“Once hydrogen infrastructure is rolled out more widely, customers will want to make use of that,” says Schubak. “We see those opportunities, and we intend to pursue them. You can imagine a day when we’re addressing the diesel engine in yard trucks, distribution trucks and more.”

This vision for the future was quite a bit hazier just a few years ago, when Ballard and other fuel cell manufacturers were unsure of where the technology might be headed.

“We’ve been a believer in this for years, but we knew a lot of good work had to happen,” says Schubak. “We have growth projections for North America, but there is also the global market to consider. We expect sales to double annually in coming years, and that’s not where we were two or three years ago.”

About the Author

Josh Bond, Contributing 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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