In 2014 more so than any other year, hydrogen fuel cell development has generated significant attention within the renewable energy and sustainability discussion. The focal point of most hydrogen-based discussions generally turns to the potential for the automobile industry. As major auto manufacturers including Hyundai, Toyota, BMW and others commit to hydrogen fuel cell vehicle development, public hunger for fuel that can power a car for longer, with water being the only by-product, has become insatiable.
With that being said, there are manufacturing and supply chain applications for hydrogen fuel that are often overlooked by the public, but which are already paying dividends in real life settings. Early in 2014, big box juggernaut Wal-Mart ordered additional fuel cells from Plug Power, a well known hydrogen fuel supplier, for use in their North American distribution centers. The project is specifically designed to provide cleaner, longer-lasting power for electric fork lifts (lift truck fleets). In mid-2014, WalMart committed to hydrogen fuel power at its seventh North American distribution center, located in Sterling, Illinois. The first implementation of a similar project, in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, produced astounding results, according to Plug Power:
“Plug Power deployed almost 300 GenDrive fuel cell units in Walmart's class-2 and class-3 electric lift trucks. Additionally, Plug Power built and commissioned Walmart Pottsville's outdoor and indoor GenFuel infrastructure in less than 13 weeks following the receipt of the initial order. To date, the GenDrive units in Pottsville have accumulated over 100,000 hours of run-time, and the GenFuel infrastructure has dispensed more than 9,900 kg of fuel.”
The success of Wal-Mart’s implementation of hydrogen fuel cell technology has only spurred more interest in the distribution sector. Ace Hardware, a popular hardware and equipment retailer, entered into an agreement with Nuvera Fuel Cells in July, 2014 to provide hydrogen fuel cells to support their forklift fleets. The on-site hydrogen generation and re-fueling technology is expected by the company to provide a significant upgrade over traditional and dirtier battery power. It is Ace Hardware’s expectation that refueling will take just two minutes, increasing productivity, and that the refueling station will be more efficient in terms of facility space.
Additionally, companies such as Sysco, through a relationship with Nuvera Fuel Cells, have utilized hydrogen fuel for other uses, such as powering refrigerated trucks. Sysco, an international brand distributing food products to retailers, healthcare facilities, and the hospitality industry, uses hydrogen fuel technology to increase cost savings of expensive shipping for perishable foods that need to remain a certain temperature for consumption. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory analyzed the use of Nuvera and Plug Power’s results for Sysco, and came to the conclusion that “by replacing the small diesel engines with the more efficient fuel cell, users will see fuel savings of approximately 10 gallons a day per unit, in addition to reduced emission of pollutants and significantly quieter operation.”
More recently, Airbus, the prominent aircraft manufacturer, announced their pursuit of hydrogen fuel cell technology. While it’s too early for hydrogen fuel to be considered viable for powering a commercial aircraft, there are several behind the scenes benefits of adopting hydrogen technology. In conjunction with South Africa's National Aerospace Centre, Airbus is pursuing funding and development for replacing Auxiliary Power Units (APUs), typically powered by diesel engines, with hydrogen-powered APUs. These APUs are used for generating power when the plane is on the ground, including lighting, air-conditioning and other applications. What’s more, the by-product of the hydrogen fuel cell, water, would be used in the plane’s on-board water and waste system, replacing its typical supply that weighs down the plane. Making the plane lighter will increase efficiency for the diesel gasoline used to power the plane during flight. While it would be speculative to say that industrial flights for shipping companies like FedEx and UPS, or manufacturers who require frequent transportation, will immediately benefit from this type of technology, one cannot help considering the potential for the industry.
Hydrogen technology, now gaining popularity with consumers for its use in fuel cell vehicle technology, possesses great potential in the manufacturing and industrial sectors. While the results of the projects listed above have been encouraging, the truth is, we are only getting started. As technology evolves, and interested global entities continue to make the commitment to hydrogen fuel, implementation should only increase – drastically. Companies that are supplying, producing, and building infrastructure around hydrogen fuel, especially at or near the point of distribution, are gaining a foothold in a burgeoning industry that is set to flourish.
Tim Young is the president and CEO of HyperSolar, developer of a technology to make renewable hydrogen using sunlight and any source of water. He is an accomplished executive with over 15 years of management experience in media and Internet technology companies.