Running or planning a two- or three-shift operation with a large number of lift trucks? "Those are ideal circumstances for considering units powered by fuel cells," says Eric Jensen, manager of research and development, Crown Equipment Corp. "For the smaller lift truck user or the single-shift user, fuel cell-powered vehicles don't make as much [economic] sense. For example, single shift operations have the overnight charging alternative." For two-shift operations, he says either fast charging or fuel cells can be effective, but that he would lean toward fuel cells if the hydrogen refueling capability was already installed.
Jensen's conclusions draw on Crown's fuel cell work under a grant of nearly $1 million from Ohio's Third Frontier Commission, an arm of the Ohio Department of Development. "We were given this grant to qualify our portfolio of lift trucks with fuel cell battery replacement power packs. Our project is to qualify as many of our trucks as possible with the commercially available fuel cell power packs. We are acting as an enabler to allow our customers that want to do a complete transformation to hydrogen-powered warehouse to do so with a full range of trucks."
Crown is collaborating with three providers of hydrogen fuel cell power packs -- Plug Power, Canada's Hydrogenics and the Deka/Nuvera team. Also collaborating with Crown is Oorja Proponics Inc., a maker of direct methanol, methyl alcohol-powered fuel cells.
For lift truck users, the biggest fuel cell benefit doesn't come from fuel savings, but from labor savings that derive from the elimination of the battery charging cycles. "Hydrogen refueling only takes about two minutes while replacing a depleted battery can take as long as 40 minutes three times a day," Jensen points out. "Then factor in eight hours of charging plus another eight hours for cooling and three-shift operation can result in three batteries per lift truck."
Jensen says the labor savings are significant enough to make up the difference between the cost of three batteries and the cost of a fuel cell power pack. He estimates labor to be 70% of the cost of operating a distribution warehouse. In addition, battery-changing equipment becomes unnecessary infrastructure with fuel cells. The other benefit is the elimination of a battery room dedicated to charging and battery maintenance and storage. Well-paid personnel and hundreds of square feet of floor space can be involved, adds Jensen. "In operation, the only emissions of a fuel cell-powered lift truck are warm air and water," he says.