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Fueling Sales of Fuel Cells


Fuel cells are leading the way in alternative energy innovations, the U.S. is leading the way in patents on fuel cell technology, and the last three years have patched together a mighty boon on fuel cells industry-wide. America is investing a relatively large amount of money in fuel cell research in order to offset the oil it consumes and will continue consuming for the foreseeable future. In a nutshell, the U.S. consumes a quarter of the world’s oil supply despite controlling only 3 percent of the world’s reserves and constituting only 4.6 percent of Earth’s population. With the upward trending costs of tapping into foreign oil reserves outpaced only by the percentage of imported oil the U.S. is projected to consume, American industries have started deploying, or determining how to deploy, fuel cell technology. Though it will almost certainly be automobiles that eventually bring fuel cells into the homes of average consumers, it has so far proven to be the warehousing and manufacturing industries bringing fuel cells to the automotive industry.

Eric Jensen, the director of research and development for Crown Equipment, a leading manufacturer of electric lifts, said in an interview earlier this year that the material handling industry is hidden behind many other more consumer-driven industries. “You see advances in fuel cell technology for the automotive industry,” Jensen says, “and it ends up on the front page. But I believe material handling is leading the way with fuel cells for the automotive industry.” Jensen may have a point. Not only did Crown unveil a whopping 20 product models that are able to run on fuel cells, but mega-corporations like Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, Sysco and FedEx have already invested a significant amount of funds to incorporate fuel cell lift trucks into their fleets. In North America, the approximate ratio of fuel cell powered lift trucks to fuel cell powered cars is about 5:1 and none of those cars are available for commercial sale. Lift trucks have the added benefit of not negotiating the same tricky fueling structure automobiles do; with fuel cell lift trucks, users essentially inherit a gas station with the purchase of every truck. “The operator of the fuel cell also owns the lift truck and the fuel supply,” Jensen says. “In the auto industry, they build the car and hope there’s a fuel supply available.” Part of what makes lift trucks a more viable outlet for fuel cell technology is that lifts are smaller, carry less daily risk and are not produced in the same quantities as automobiles. Fuel cell trucks have a quicker turnaround in development and easier leverage to wedge itself into the battery market. The result has been a quickly expanding fuel cell lift market being closely scrutinized by the automobile and aviation industries. And what they’re scrutinizing are how exactly fuel cells work and how they can be optimized for the mass market.

Fuel cells are energy conversion devices (like standard engines) disguised as energy storage devices (like batteries). Similar to batteries, fuel cells break down two dissimilar metals by mingling them into an electricity conducting liquid. Unlike batteries, which contain limited electricity-creating chemicals within each unit, fuel cells generate their own chemicals and get repurposed through the cell to create an infinite amount of energy. The heat and water fuel cell by-product is broken down into hydrogen and oxygen and converted into more energy.

Among the various fuel cell types, three have emerged as the best suited for the material handling industry: Polymer Oxide (PEMFC), Solid Oxide (SOFC) and Molten-Carbonate (MCFC) fuel cells (See: Fig.1). PEMFCs are being developed by the U.S. Department of Energy as the likeliest candidate for transportation applications (both lift truck-type warehouse machinery as well as long distance transportation trucks). SOFC and MCFC fuel cells work best in stationary power generation plants on a scale most similar to the one currently being overseen by the gas turbine in your city’s power plant. These latter cells present a unique opportunity for stationary power suppliers like warehouses to develop fuel cell utilization in ways moving objects have yet to achieve: primarily within storage spaces.

In theory, it would be difficult to make the case for choosing limited energy sources over energy sources that would never need replacing. Efficiencies with facility personnel, lower electric costs, smaller total energy consumption, and almost every bill warehouse owners pay would decrease upon the adoption of fuel cell technology.

Successfully hooking a new technology into the market is harder than a teen convincing an overprotective father he’ll be gentlemanly during a date with his daughter. The difficulty lies not only in giving an underdeveloped technology a voice in a normally bearish market, but in also convincing the market to invest in the technology anyway. To date, fuel cells are still expensive (approximately four times more expensive than a diesel generator’s per kilowatt price tag and more than 10 times that of a natural gas turbine’s price). Fuel cells are also still less durable than desired (membranes can corrode or degenerate at high temps), still malfunction in low-humidity and sub-zero temperatures (hydrated membranes freeze in cold storage units), and still struggle with the ever-present problem with infrastructure. It’s one thing to want your warehouse operating on fuel cells, it’s quite another to spearhead the movement.

Indeed, it takes a great deal of capital investment (and faith) before most of the material handling industry will see increased productivity from fuel cells. It is important to note, however, the many early adopters whom have seen efficiencies rise as operating costs fall. Martin Brower, the world’s largest restaurant distributor, invested in 15 methanol-powered fuel cells in one of its largest California facilities. With relative immediacy, the company saw its distribution costs decrease after the initial investment.

Direct Methanol fuel cell systems (DMFC) quietly generate efficient electricity without any toxic emissions generated. Highly efficient DMFC power plants require minimal refueling, resulting in less fuel needed per kilowatt hour of electricity. The result is the potential to effectively lower the total logistical and operational cost of the average warehouse. Foodservice distributor US Foods invested in 40 of the same methanol fuel cells after a month-long trial period in which the distributor increased productivity from not having to service and maintain battery-powered lift trucks multiple times a day. In 2009, Nissan’s Smyrna, Tenn., plant replaced battery powered forklifts with fuel cell lifts and shaved off 35 daily wasted personnel hours caused by battery maintenance and 1,500 daily kilowatt hours sucked up by the battery chargers.

A single fuel cell produces about 0.7 volts of electricity. Considering it would take at least 58 fuel cells to generate the same wattage as the least incandescent light bulb in your home, it’s clear why fuel cells must be combined into stacks and why those stacks eat into the space necessary to store the power supply automobiles. A dozen horses may carry a carriage farther and faster than one horse, but the barn must be a great deal bigger, too. Bipolar plates are used to connect one fuel cell to another and are subjected to both oxidizing and reducing conditions and potentials. This suggests that fuel cell technology in warehouses may zip ahead of similar vehicle technology because space is less of a concern in the former. While PEMFC systems have become lighter and smaller as improvements are made, they are still too large and heavy for use in standard vehicles, Warehouses, however, can spare the space.

Storage space may be setting the pace in the race between fuel cell automobiles, fuel cell lift trucks and fuel cell storage spaces, but it is a minor issue compared to institutionalized support of the technology as a whole. Technology cannot weave itself into the industrial fabric without support from government and educational institutions. Such recognition would serve not only as a hat tip to investors that fuel cells are a good bet, but also as the pathway to lowering fuel cell production costs. Bob Simon, director of process solutions for GENCO ATC, one of America’s largest third-party logistics companies, said in an April magazine interview that “without programs and incentives, it will be hard to overcome some of the reservations in the industry. Customers are willing to be leaders, but they don’t want to be pioneers.”

Realistically, full adoption of fuel cells into warehouses or storage spaces isn’t practical – and in some cases, impossible. The legislation on fuel cell powered products is almost non-existent, hydrogen is a widely underdeveloped resource for mass consumptive handling and most of the businesses that can afford a large percentage of fuel cell adoption still don’t have organized plans detailing how to implement and maintain it successfully. Many organizations are working to develop consistent, harmonized codes and standards for fuel cells and hydrogen, but they’re not here … yet. That’s the point; an arrival of fuel cells, although not imminent, is pending. Pioneers are amassing; the shift has taken hold. According to a report filed by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2010, “The National Fire Protection Association published the 2010 code for compressed gases and cryogenic fluid […] the DOE Hydrogen Program supported workshops that reached more than 300 code officials and published several online courses.”

Fuel cells are expensive and offer little incentive for the small markets to invest. And herein lies the problem: in order for costs to go down to a level in which small companies can afford to invest, more companies need to adopt the technology. Lowered costs, however, aren’t likely without more early adopters working out the kinks. Nevertheless, the solutions are nearby; close enough that warehouse owners and manufacturers should already be taking notice, crunching numbers and preparing for alternative fuel sources to fuel alternative operation methods sooner or later.