The Fuel Cell Race

The Fuel Cell Race

Lift trucks have pulled ahead of cars in the race to adopt fuel cell technology.

The undeclared competition between lift trucks and automobiles for fuel cell adoption is part of a process that lift truck provider, Raymond Corp. began to accelerate in 2004. "That year we set a goal targeting the performance testing of a fleet of fuel cell-powered vehicles in a real-life manufacturing environment," says Raymond's Steve Medwin, manager of advanced research.

Raymond's program was developed with a research grant from the New York Energy Research and Development Authority. The testing and evaluation project, begun January 2007, is underway at Raymond's Greene N.Y. manufacturing facility, says Medwin.

But the automotive sector is not lagging much, if at all. For example in 2005 American Honda Motor Co. Inc. announced an historic first -- the lease of a prototype FCX hydrogen-powered fuel cell automobile. A Los Angeles family became the first private citizens to use California's Hydrogen Highway refueling stations. Beginning in the summer of 2008, Honda customers in southern California will have the opportunity to test the latest fuel cell prototype, the FCX Clarity, via a $600 monthly lease.

But lift trucks gained some "race" momentum at the January 2007 ProMat Show via a fuel cell prototype from Toyota Material Handling U.S.A. Inc. The prototype is not a fuel cell retrofit, emphasizes Toyota's Brett Wood, vice president of marketing, product and strategic planning and training operations. "It represents the second phase of fuel cell vehicle development where the elimination of the battery box means new design freedom for the entire vehicle. The Toyota FCHV-F was designed around the characteristics of fuel cells, not those of batteries."

The preliminary research findings of Raymond's testing project provide insight into the design issue. Medwin explains that in today's electric lift truck designs, the battery acts as part of the counterweight. "Hydrogen fuel cell components do not weigh the same as heavy lead-acid batteries," he notes, "so additional weight must be added to the fuel cell unit, and this weight must be distributed within the fuel cell system so the center of gravity is the same as that of the battery it replaces. Future lift trucks may have the fuel cell wholly incorporated into the design of the truck to address those issues."

Medwin reports that the early study results reveal that braking distance and maximum travel and lift speeds of the fuel cell truck are equivalent to that of battery-powered lift trucks.

He also cites refueling time savings. "Refueling the fuel cell truck at an indoor hydrogen refueling station takes only a couple of minutes compared with as much as the 20 minutes required to remove and replace a battery from the same truck model."

Honda plans limited marketing of its fuel cell-equipped FCX Clarity in California, the first state with hydrogen refueling stations. Meanwhile, industrial users of hydrogen-powered vehicles (a Raymond lift truck is shown above) have more refueling options.
Meanwhile more ongoing tests of fuel cell-powered lift trucks were announced. One was the Greater Columbia Fuel Cell Challenge. That one is a collaborative effort among the City of Columbia, S.C., the University of South Carolina and the South Carolina Research Authority. In January 2007 that collaborative effort helped fund further user tests conducted by Hydrogenics Corp. and the LiftOne division of Carolina Tractor. Hydrogenics fuel cells are also powering Hyster trucks in demonstration projects at FedEx and General Motors of Canada, says Hyster's Peter Laroia, president.

The fuel cell winning streak continues following demonstrations at two Ohio Wal-Mart locations. Those tests used Plug Power fuel cells on Crown and Nissan Barrett trucks. The result: Wal-Mart's success led to replacing batteries on pallet trucks with fuel cells at the retail giant's food distribution center at Washington Court House, Ohio.

At the moment, Raymond's Medwin says fuel cells are more commercially viable for material handling than for automotive. "Installing and maintaining a refueling infrastructure is a relatively simple matter on a warehouse-by-warehouse basis."

And hydrogen refueling of lift trucks could get easier yet -- and maybe even open up potential in the automotive arena. ExxonMobil has announced a research collaboration with a goal of innovating an on-board means for lift trucks to convert liquid hydrocarbons -- gasoline, diesel and bio-fuels -- into hydrogen.

"We hope to demonstrate significant infrastructure, logistics and cost advantages compared to other hydrogen vehicle systems, all while reducing the impact on the environment," says Emil Jacobs, vice president of research and development at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering. The joint effort is being conducted with QuestAir Technologies, Plug Power Inc. and Ben Gurion University.

Hyster lift trucks with Hydrogenics fuel cells are in trial runs at FedEx and GM of Canada.
"There is a long road ahead before this technology could be deployed on a mass scale in passenger vehicles, but it has the potential to be up to 80% more fuel efficient than today's internal combustion engine technologies and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 45%," Jacobs explains. "The use of this technology in a practical, commercial setting such as in a lift truck application is an important early step in demonstrating the potential benefits this technology may hold in the long term."

The on-vehicle hydrogen fuel system comprises an advanced reformer developed by ExxonMobil and hydrogen separation using QuestAir Technologies' Rapid Cycle Pressure Swing Adsorption system. Sulfur is controlled by an ExxonMobil proprietary S-Trap developed in conjunction with Ben Gurion University. Jacobs says Plug Power will be responsible for integrating the fuel system with its GenDrive fuel cell power system for lift truck applications.

"Since this system does not require changes to the fuel delivery infrastructure -- unlike compressed hydrogen fuel systems -- this overcomes one of the key challenges manufacturers face in developing hydrogen powered vehicles for potential consumer use," he notes.

Other university research brings other promises for the future of fuel cell application.

For example, Penn State researchers have devised a proof-of-concept model that shows promise for solar cells that can recover hydrogen from water. "Ultimately, catalytic systems with 10% to 15% solar conversion efficiency might be achievable," says Thomas E. Mallouk, the DuPont professor of material chemistry and physics. "If this could be realized, water photolysis would provide a clean source of hydrogen fuel from water and sunlight." The research is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Meanwhile at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, two scientists propose an idea that could complement the ExxonMobil idea of turning liquid hydrocarbons into hydrogen. However, the scientists, William L. Kubic Jr. and F. Jeffrey Martin, don't want to touch the earth's petroleum reserves. They propose chemically converting airborne carbon dioxide emissions into gasoline. One caveat is the energy required. The concept was presented at February's Alternate Energy Now conference in Buena Vista, Fla.

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