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Hydrogen fuel cells for forklift trucks

Still fuel celll power packThis article is from the latest edition of Warehouse News and the picture is of a hydrogen fuel cell power unit manufactured by Still Materials Handling Ltd.

It has often been said that forklift buyers should look at the life cycle costs of a given truck rather than the initial cost. The same is now true of the truck’s motive power source, and hydrogen fuel cell technology seems to bear that out.

Major forklift producers like Hyster, and Yale now offer a hydrogen fuel pack in their trucks but take- up has been slow mainly because initially they cost about twice as much as a lead-acid battery-powered forklift. Now, it seems, a breakthrough over the cost barrier perception comes from Amazon and Walmart’s big commitment to hydrogen fuel cells. Both these companies have each committed US$600 million to hydrogen-powered forklifts, using Power Plug cells. According to a study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, hydrogen is 10% cheaper over a 10-year life span of an average forklift but Power Plug, who will be supplying the two retail giants, says the cost advantage has improved further since the study.

A big plus for hydrogen is that they can be charged in minutes instead of hours and the fuelling process itself takes only two minutes instead of about 15 minutes needed to swap an electric battery. This helps free-up warehouse space, (no need for standby batteries), and eliminates labour costs for charging batteries. Its ‘green’ credentials can even beat electric, especially if power is generated on site by solar panels. They are also superior to electric in that they don’t get sluggish inside cold stores or when their fuel runs low.

The outlook certainly looks more promising for hydrogen with much to go for now that two of the world’s biggest retailers have heavily committed nine-figure investment sums. Of over 600,000 forklifts in America, only 3% run on hydrogen but that number should now grow sharply. Little wonder, then, that the world’s biggest forklift maker, Toyota Motor Corp, has just begun to develop its own hydrogen-powered models.

Here is a brief description of the workings of hydrogen fuel cells.

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